This week, the inquiry heard evidence from witnesses at Harley Facades, the sub-contractor responsible for Grenfell Tower’s cladding. The witnesses were grilled about their relationships with other key members of the supply chain and their knowledge of the safety of the materials they were using on the building. Pete Apps recaps the key points.
A very nice meal
Arguably the key task for this first stage of the lengthy second phase of the inquiry is to understand how and why the team responsible ended up selecting deadly Reynobond PE 55 cladding – an aluminium composite material (ACM), which burned like petrol when ignited.
This week added a startling new facet to that story: the extent to which Harley was apparently pushing Reynobond to the exclusion of other cladding products.
This story began in on 27 September 2013 when Mark Harris and Ray Bailey, the commercial manager and managing director at Harley, met with Bruce Sounes, the lead architect, in a coffee shop in Hay’s Galleria, London Bridge, to discuss “options and costs”.
They showed Mr Sounes a brochure of its previous jobs, which included a number of high-rises clad in ACM. “Their recurring experience is that budgets force clients to adopt the cheapest cladding option: ACM,” Mr Sounes wrote in an email following the meeting.
However, Mr Sounes remained keen on zinc and asked Mr Harris to explore costs for various cladding options, particularly a product called ‘NedZinc’, which he said “could be ideal”.
But this was not what Mr Harris provided. Instead, he offered budget options composed entirely of Reynobond products. In an email, he emphasised that if the switch to ACM was made, “the saving could potentially be over £500k” and offered site visits to other blocks that had used ACM.
“Is it fair to say that you were actually pushing Reynobond ACM – or at least ACM – pretty hard?” Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked Mr Harris.
“We weren’t sitting there thinking anything but: ‘This is a really good product for this application and may prove a good solution for Grenfell Tower,’” he replied.
Mr Harris was then aked to get a quote for another zinc product, a Proteus panel manufactured by KME. The firm gave Mr Harris a price of £115 per square metre, but this was not what he passed on to Studio E. Instead, he gave a price of £282 per square metre, which included his own estimates for the cost of transport and fabrication. In the email to Studio E with the price, he wrote: “From a Harley selfish point of view, our preference would be to use ACM. It’s tried and tested on many Harley projects.”
Questioned, he said this was “a poor choice of words”, adding: “I was alluding to the fact there that Harley had great experience using ACM and liked using the product.”
Eventually, Mr Sounes included Reynobond ACM as an alternative when the work went out to tender and it was eventually selected.
When he got the news it was likely to be used, Mr Harris forwarded the email to Debbie French, a salesperson at Reynobond manufacturer Arconic, and Geof Blades, sales director at CEP, which would cut it to shape and sell it on.
Mr Blades responded: “All I can say is that you will be taken out for a very nice meal very soon somewhere very soon.”
Ms French added: “It’s getting exciting… thank you for your hard work and perseverance in putting Reynobond forward. I think I owe you and Geof either lunch or dinner at some point.”
“It looks from what we have been seeing so far that the relationship between the three of you was pretty cosy, to use a colloquialism. Would you accept that?” said Mr Millett.
“No, I would say it was professional, and we knew each other professionally and that was all,” replied Mr Harris.
“Were any incentives provided for you to use Alcoa and their Reynobond product over any other product made by other manufacturers?” asked Mr Millett.
“No,” said Mr Harris.
‘Did you just take it on trust from Celotex?’
Aside from questions about its role in selecting the products, Harley’s witnesses were also grilled about their knowledge of whether the products being included were safe and compliant with the regulations.
These questions were particularly pertinent in relation to the insulation, Celotex RS5000, which was used on the building despite being below the required standard of limited combustibility – a straightforward breach of the guidance.
Ray Bailey, managing director and founder of Harley, was asked about this in detail and his answers were enlightening.
He first explained that the use of combustible insulation on high-rises had become commonplace when rules on insulation performance toughened in 2009.
“Prior to 2009, every project we did had [non-combustible] Rockwool on it,” he said. As a result, he assumed combustible insulation could be used on high-rises.
“When we were asked to use Celotex on Grenfell Tower, we were of the mindset that these new special super-duper insulation products were acceptable, providing they met certain criteria,” he said.
He said he believed this first because Celotex used a phrase ‘Class 0 throughout’ to advertise its products. He said this led him to believe the product was actually of limited combustibility.
“I think this is a confusion… I think it’s quite widespread throughout the industry,” he said.
This confusion arose because Class 0 is the standard in official guidance for the external walls. It applied, before Grenfell, to the ACM cladding panels but not to the insulation, which was required to be ‘limited combustibility’ – an entirely separate standard no plastic could reach. The phrase ‘Class 0 throughout’ is essentially meaningless.
However, the apparent confusion went further than this. Celotex advertised its product as “suitable for use on buildings above 18m” and referred to a test it had passed that apparently cleared the way for its installation on high-rises, despite its combustibility.
But this test was not in a system using ACM – it was with cement fibre panels and should only have been installed in the exact combination tested. Product literature made this clear.
Mr Bailey’s evidence was that Harley had specifically asked Celotex for an assurance that the product was suitable for use on Grenfell and had been told it was.
“We had their technical sales manager in to go through the project, we sent drawings showing the application with the ACM on the building to them, and I think we carried out all possible reasonable checks,” said Mr Bailey.
“Did you just take it on trust from Celotex… Even though they had a vested interest in making sure you bought the product because they were making it and selling it?” asked Mr Millett.
“Yeah. Why… how… why would they lie to us?” replied Mr Bailey.
It is important to say that while Celotex is yet to give evidence, its opening statement makes clear that the firm did not believe it had any design responsibility for Grenfell. No emails or documents were disclosed confirming Mr Bailey’s claim that Celotex approved the use of the product for Grenfell.
‘We can control and understand what core is being used in all projects’
What then of the Reynobond ACM? Mr Bailey placed a good deal of weight on a British Board of Agrement (BBA) certificate (pictured) from 2008 that apparently confirmed the product had a Class 0 rating.
On the face of it, this is a reasonable argument. Government guidance required Class 0 for external surfaces of walls before Grenfell and official certification would serve as reasonable confirmation of this standard.
But there were several issues. He only read the certificate in detail in 2008 and did not specifically check it when it was sent with reference to the Grenfell project in 2014.
The certificate made disclaimers concerning colour changes, which he did not note. It also specifically noted that the products were available in a ‘fire retardant grade’ – and the only Class 0 test pass to which it referred was for this grade.
Mr Bailey said he believed the only difference for Reynobond FR ACM was that this would produce less smoke and never considered that it might be a better product for Grenfell Tower.
There was also enlightening evidence at this point relating to Arconic. In the first week of evidence, the inquiry saw an email from Ms French relating to several high-rise fires in the Middle East involving ACM. She was reassuring third-party suppliers such a disaster would not be repeated in the UK.
She said the firm could “control and understand what core is being used in all projects” and as a result “offer the right Reynobond specification including the core”.
Mr Bailey said he was “shocked” by this email and said “none of that’s been fed back down to us”.
We also caught a glimpse of a witness statement from Claude Wehrle, a senior figure at Arconic, that referred to the fact that Reynobond was testing to rock-bottom fire classification of ‘Class E’ when cut into cassette form. This was the type of panel used on Grenfell and Mr Bailey said he was “absolutely not” made aware of this testing.
Also probed, particularly with Mr Harris, was the close nature of the relationship between Harley and the eventual lead contractor Rydon.
As early as August 2013, before the project was even put up for bidding, Mr Harris – whose job was to win projects for Harley – emailed a contact at Rydon to notify them of the planned Grenfell Tower works.
“This one has ‘our’ name written all over it,” he wrote.
When Rydon was bidding against two other firms (Durkan and Mullaley) for the work in February 2014, the rivals contacted Mr Harris for some pricing information to inform their bids.
He wrote to Simon Lawrence, contract manager at Rydon: “We have opted to keep it basic and not issue a detailed programme but would be happy to do so for your good self!”
Mr Lawrence replied: “I hope you were as vague with your price with them whilst inflating it also!!”
“I don’t know what he meant by that, but I can assure you that we didn’t do any of that,” said Mr Harris.
Asked if he was acting as a “self-appointed spy” for Rydon, Mr Harris said he was being “helpful” because “we had the historic relationship with Rydon… I think you find in the world of contracting… this goes on all the time”.
‘We are not statutory compliance experts’
Pinning down exactly what Harley was responsible for doing at Grenfell Tower is made more complex because it never signed a formal contract for the works.
Instead, in July 2014, it was given a ‘letter of intent’ authorising it to carry out £30,000 of design works. By September, with no contract in place, the amount of work to be carried out under the letter was extended to the full £2.6m cladding job.
This letter therefore represents the only contractual position between Rydon and Harley, even though – for reasons unexplained – Harley did not actually sign it.
The letter’s terms made Harley responsible for the design of the facade “including relevant compliances” and referred to the main contract Rydon had signed, which included reference to various documents spelling out the potential fire risk of using combustible materials.
But when Mr Bailey was asked if this meant “the buck stopped with Harley” with regard to the safety of products and design, he insisted it did not. He said that “ultimately”, the firm was reliant on building control inspectors at the council to ensure its designs complied.
“Are you telling us that, even though Harley was a specialist cladding subcontractor with a lot of experience, particularly in relation to overcladding high-rise residential buildings, you nonetheless relied on building control to tell you whether or not the products and design complied with the statutory requirements?” said Mr Millett (pictured).
“We are not statutory compliance experts, so when we have a doubt about how something is done, we seek guidance, and building control are the experts on compliance,” replied Mr Bailey.
‘We are doomed to fail’
Neither Mr Bailey, the overall boss of Harley, nor Mr Harris, who won its jobs, worked directly on the Grenfell design or site management, so we will have to wait until next week to get more details about this. But there was some concerning evidence this week.
First, we saw an email written shortly before Harley was appointed spelling out major concern about its capacity to do the job.
“There are many items which need looking at by our proposed Grenfell House [sic] construction team, and therein lies the problem, we don’t fucking have one!!” wrote Mr Harris on 18 June 2014. “The last thing I want to do is walk away from the job… However, unless we can gear up and service it, will [sic] are doomed to fail.”
Mr Bailey says the firm responded by recruiting an initial designer and backing away from another potential job in Wembley.
But there were evidently financial pressures floating around Harley. Mr Bailey revealed the firm as it was then known – Harley Curtain Wall – went into administration in September 2015 before the job completed. The work was transferred to a dormant company he also owned, Harley Facades.
Finally, eyebrows were raised by the revelation that the project manager for the work was Ben Bailey, Ray Bailey’s 25-year-old son, who had previously only managed one project. “He has worked for the company during his school and university holidays since 2009, so he was very familiar with project management,” explained Mr Bailey Sr.
The week started with the last Rydon witness, Zak Maynard (pictured), who was taken through the company’s decision to hide the true costs of cladding savings from client Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), in order to boost its profit margin.
We discussed that in detail in a previous Grenfell diary, but Mr Maynard’s evidence was enlightening in revealing how brazenly this was discussed internally by Rydon.
In relation to the switch, he wrote: “First part of the battle now we will agree to give them 10% of the savings back and we are quids in!!”
Asked about this, he explained: “You know, if we don’t have to give them back as much as we thought, we would have more profit.”
The inquiry continues next week with more witnesses from Harley. A timetable of the planned run through to the end of Phase Two evidence in December 2021 has now been published.
Rydon’s commercial manager emailed his boss to say the firm would be “quids in” as a result of savings made from switching the cladding from zinc to a deadly aluminium composite material option, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard today.
The owner of the specialist cladding company that installed the deadly system on Grenfell Tower said the firm did not check whether design drawings met statutory requirements and had been “convinced” by the insulation manufacturer that its combustible insulation was suitable for high rises.
The cladding sub-contractor for Grenfell Tower was “confused” by basic fire standards for cladding products and “took it on trust” from the manufacturers that they were compliant, the inquiry into the fire heard today.
The commercial manager at the cladding sub-contractor employed on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment today denied promoting the deadly cladding due to a "cosy" relationship with supplier as emails revealed he was offered "very nice meal" after the deal was secured.
Week one: a vivid picture of a broken industry
After a week of damning revelations at the opening of phase two of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Peter Apps recaps the key points
Week two: what is the significance of the immunity application?
Sir Martin Moore-Bick has written to the attorney general requesting protection for those set to give evidence at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Peter Apps explains what the move means
Week three: architects of misfortune
This week saw the lead architects for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment give evidence to the inquiry. Peter Apps runs through the key points
Week four: ‘I didn’t have any perception that it was the monster it’s become’
The architects continued to give evidence this week, outlining a lack of understanding of the fire risk posed by the cladding materials and its design. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week five: ‘No adverse effect in relation to external fire spread’
As the Grenfell Tower Inquiry returns from its long absence, Peter Apps recaps the key points from a week of important evidence from the fire consultants to the refurbishment
Week six: ‘I can’t recall any instance where I discussed the materials with building control’
Nathaniel Barker summarises what we learned from fire engineers Exova, architects Studio E and the early evidence from contractor Rydon
Week seven: ‘I do not think I have ever worked with a contractor operating with this level of nonchalance’
Two key witnesses from contractor Rydon gave evidence this week. Peter Apps recaps some of the key points from a revealing week of evidence
Week eight: 'It haunts me that it wasn't challenged'
Four witnesses from contractor Rydon gave evidence this week. Lucie Heath recaps what we learned on the last week of evidence before the inquiry breaks for five weeks
Week nine: ‘All I can say is you will be taken out for a very nice meal very soon’
This week the inquiry heard evidence from witnesses at Harley Facades, the sub-contractor responsible for Grenfell Tower’s cladding. Peter Apps recaps the key points
Week 10: ‘As we all know, ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire!’
As the Grenfell Tower Inquiry entered its 10th week, Jack Simpson recaps the key points from a week of important evidence from the refurbishment’s cladding contractor