Inquiry experts attended insulation industry meeting

Inquiry experts attended insulation industry meeting

PROFESSORS LUKE Bisby and Jose Torero attended meetings of the Modern Building Alliance that discussed the UK’s combustible materials ban.

Inside Housing reported that the two professors were among 11 ‘external representatives’ that attended a meeting of the Modern Building Alliance (MBA), a group that describes itself as an ‘alliance of trade associations and companies that represent the plastics industry in the construction sector’. That meeting had seen discussions of the UK’s combustible materials ban for high rises, which had been described as a ‘key commercial risk’ to the plastics industry within construction.

The two had previously advised the inquiry ‘against extending the combustibles ban’ before attending the meeting last November in Brussels, which in more detail was said to be the group’s first meeting for its advisory group on facade fire safety, set up to ‘build a roadmap towards safe and sustainable facades’. This was in light of what it described as the ‘real and significant’ problem of combustible facades, and the meeting discussed the combustible insulation ban.

Minutes of the meeting recorded that some of the participants felt the ban was a ‘key commercial risk’ to the industry that would ‘harm the commercial interests of its members’, though human safety and property protection were identified as ‘top priorities’. Both professors attended the meeting after being invited to write short reports for Sir Martin on potential policy recommendations, which were released in October as the first phase report was launched.

Professor Torero - of University of College London – urged against banning materials based on specific fire classifications, adding that ‘introducing further bans/restrictions on the basis of classifications that are a product of inadequate testing will not resolve the issue of “adequate level of vertical flame spread”’.

Professor Bisby, of the University of Edinburgh, in turn wrote that ‘it is my opinion that this approach (ie the ban) undermines the “outcomes based” approach to fire safety that is supported by the Hackitt Review […] while “a ban” may be politically appealing under the circumstances, I am concerned that, by promoting a regulatory approach wherein designers are discouraged from being competent and taking responsibility for their designs, the manner of its implementation could lead to unintended and negative consequences across the construction sector’.

In the recommendations made by Sir Martin, neither of the professors’ suggestions were included, and Inside Housing added that the November meeting was held under Chatham House rules, so minutes ‘do not record what the specific participants said or what position they took’. The minutes added: ‘A key commercial risk for the [MBA] specifically is the possibility of a ban of plastic materials used in facades.

‘This has started in the UK for certain types of buildings and will perhaps spread beyond. Some would argue that this harms their commercial interests while not addressing fire safety and it will also jeopardise reaching energy efficiency targets in Europe… Some experts believe that designing fire-safe facades using combustible products is not a technical problem and it can be achieved relatively easy.’

They added that given the risk of a wider ban, it was important for all to take responsibilities seriously and for the industry to ‘take initiative’ and ‘show governments it can take actions that are better than seeing its products banned’. Neither professor was paid by the MBA and the inquiry was informed of their attendance, and both declined to comment on the story, referring to the inquiry’s response.

This read: ‘As leading academics, Professor Torero and Professor Bisby must be free to attend conferences at which matters within their fields of study are discussed. They do so as independent academics and not as representatives of the inquiry. Both of them are well aware of the duties they owe to the inquiry and of the need to avoid being drawn into discussions that might compromise, or even appear to comprise, their independence.

‘We have no reason to think that either of them has acted in any way that would cast doubt on their ability to give impartial expert advice to the inquiry.’

An MBA spokesperson said: ‘As a European industry association, we regularly engage with outside experts to help inform our views and gather a broad church of opinion. Fire safety of facades is an important topic for our industry; we therefore invited a group of experts from different countries and different backgrounds to share their perspectives and suggestions.

‘They expressed a diverse range of views which will help to inform the [MBA’s] support for a data-driven, holistic and performance-orientated approach to advance fire safety in buildings.’

Last month, panellist Benita Mehra was discovered to have links to cladding manufacturer Arconic, having earlier that month replaced Professor Nabeel Hamdi. After much criticism Ms Mehra resigned, ‘less than 48 hours before’ the second phase began with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, as well as its immediate aftermath and the government’s role.

It is expected to last 18 months, with around 200,000 documents – including private emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released. Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation manufacturer Celotex and Arconic and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) opened proceedings.

The 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 that the refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key safety report. Recently, hearings were delayed until late February due to the witnesses’ threat, which saw them ask for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’.