Grenfell inquiry resumes with architect testimony

Grenfell inquiry resumes with architect testimony

THE RESUMPTION of the inquiry has seen Studio E – which designed the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower – admit it was not qualified to undertake the refurbishment.

The second phase began with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. It is expected to last 18 months, with 200,000 documents – including emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released. Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation and cladding manufacturers Celotex and Arconic and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) opened proceedings.

Opening weeks contained submissions for an overview of the primary refurbishment including cladding, the testing and certification; and fire safety measures including complaints and communications with residents. ‘Key revelations’ included that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment were ‘accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’.

That first week also heard refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key report. However hearings were delayed due to the witnesses’ threat, which saw them ask for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This move was granted recently, and the inquiry resumed.

The Guardian reported on the testimony from Studio E and founder Andrzej Kuszell, who admitted it ‘lacked experience in cladding tower blocks’, and revealed that the company was selected ‘despite never having carried out similar work’, without any ‘competitive procurement process, interview or design competition’. Mr Kuszell also could not recall any competence check being undertaken.

Studio E also admitted it was so ‘green on process and technicality’ that staff would have to undergo ‘rapid training’, while Mr Kuszell admitted the company ‘would not have been selected if there had been’ a procurement tender, stating: ‘I am really, really sorry for all of you. I can only say to you from my heart we really wanted to do the best project we could.’

Inquiry counsel Richard Millett said Studio E’s selection was ‘cheap, convenient, quick, even though Grenfell Tower was a completely different kind of project with different challenges’ to the neighbouring school it had refurbished. Mr Kuszell confirmed his team ‘was not experienced in overcladding a residential tower block’, with Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) knowing ‘exactly what our skill set was’.

The company’s Neil Crawford ‘had day-to-day management’ of the project, but was not fully qualified as an architect, while senior architect Bruce Sounes testified he had not worked on a high rise building and had no experience with composite materials. He also believed Studio E would not have won the job in a bid process due to a ‘lack of relevant experience’.

Asked whether Studio E might have been in financial difficulties when taking the job, and whether it was ‘eager to retain lucrative projects despite not having the expertise’, Mr Sounes said this was an ‘unfair question […] if a project comes along and there is no reason for you not to do it, you will do it’. Emails also revealed early budgets were considered ‘too low’ by Studio E, with the fee offered kept low to ‘avoid putting the contract out to tender under public procurement rules’.

In emails the company believed this ‘would not cover all the work they needed to do’, with Mr Sounes worried about KCTMO’s approach, describing ideas for early design changes as ‘headless chickens, a chaotic mess’ and warning Mr Kuszell that the project was being treated like a ‘poor relative’. This related to an email from RBKC’s housing strategy and regeneration manager Jane Trethewey that said Grenfell was ‘one of its worst property assets’, with recladding to ‘prevent it looking like a poor cousin to the brand new facility being developed next door’.

Mr Kuszell said: ‘I believe that we had the processes and experience of complex buildings to be able to undertake this commission. But it was clear that there would be a need for CPD and research around the project.’

Mr Sounes also admitted ‘no knowledge’ of rapid fire spread; that he had not read regulations pertaining to cladding; did not know aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding panels were combustible, nor that they had previously caught fire on buildings; and ‘did not familiarise’ himself with relevant regulations demanding external walls ‘adequately resist the spread of fire’.

This meant he did not see a diagram that showed how external wall systems must meet safety rules, as well as information about previous cladding fires and diagrams that showed how fires could spread on high rise residential buildings. He also admitted he had not read regulatory guidance about designing cavity barriers, despite Studio E promising to ‘ensure that all designs comply with the relevant statutory requirements’ in client service lists.

Mr Sounes said the council’s building control department was responsible for checking compliance, and gave more detail on the lower fee asked for to ensure the job did not go out to tender. KCTMO requested he ‘deferred charging some fees’ so that the threshold obliging the organisation to issue an open tender ‘was not met’, which was revealed in emails and project meeting notes.

One note from July 2012 said KCTIMO ‘would like […] the total fee up until stage D [a design phase] not exceeding £174k which is the OJEU threshold for requiring work to be tendered. This will probably mean deferring some fees’. Three days after that, Mr Sounes proposed to KCTMO’s director of assets and regeneration Mark Anderson ‘a 50% deferment of all stage D fees to keep the total stage D fee below £174k’.

His statement added: ‘I understood that this limit was the maximum contract value permissible under EU procurement regulations, above which KCTMO would have to follow a compliant procurement process in selecting consultants. Such a process might involve advertising and tendering the opportunity publicly or using consultants from an approved framework list.’

Mr Anderson had stressed to Studio E in May 2012 that ‘we have a project to deliver within a very tight timescale and an even tighter budget’, Mr Sounes confirming that at that time ‘none’ of the company’s architects had experience of such cladding projects. Sir Martin asked him ‘did you ever suggest’ that ‘because of the level of fees it ought to go out to tender’, Mr Sounes replying that ‘I’m afraid I don’t have the insight’ on the rules to ‘take a view on what ought to have happened’ and that he ‘did not know who in the TMO made the decision’.

The inquiry was halted by community activists during Mr Kuszell’s evidence, who shouted that the inquiry was a ‘cover-up’ and a ‘disgrace’ due to the witness protection, which ‘had not been given’ to firefighters. The two men said witnesses were being given ‘different treatment’ and ‘you should shut them down’, with Sir Martin halting proceedings and ordering them to be removed. However, they refused, leaving the bereaved and survivors to remonstrate with them before they eventually left.