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Grenfell Tower Inquiry diary week 11: ‘Did you get the impression that Grenfell Tower was a guinea pig for this insulation?’

With witnesses’ evidence from the cladding sub-contractor, the firm that cut the deadly panels to shape, and the clerk of works who inspected the job, this was a week full of revelations at the Grenfell Inquiry. Peter Apps recaps the key points

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With witnesses’ evidence from the cladding sub-contractor, the firm that cut the deadly panels to shape, and the clerk of works who inspected the job, this was a week full of revelations at the Grenfell Inquiry #UKhousing

The early selection of Celotex

Much of the most important evidence this week surrounded the selection of the combustible and non-compliant Celotex RS5000 insulation product for the tower.

Andrew McQuatt, who worked as project engineer on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment for consultancy Max Fordham, was asked about the genesis of this decision.

It began in summer 2012, when the consultancy decided it should “go for new-build targets” for thermal efficiency in the refurbishment.


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Building guidance at the time required the walls of new buildings to achieve a ‘U-value’ of 0.15. That is a technical measurement for the amount of heat that escapes, and the lower it is the tougher it is to achieve. Refurbishment jobs are required to achieve a U-value of just 0.3, so this was double the target.

Mr McQuatt explained that he did not believe this was impossible, because the work being done was similar to a new-build project.

“If you were to build a tower from scratch, and you were to build a concrete tower, apply insulation to that concrete frame and apply rainscreen, that didn’t seem any different from doing the renovation,” he said. “Because it was so similar to how you might construct a new build, those new-build targets didn’t seem crazy.”

He added that planning guidance in London made thermal efficiency “the top tier of that hierarchy” of priorities in construction.

Nonetheless, as the project got under way, the architects described the target as “a bit aspirational” and “over the top”.

They initially explored ways of meeting the target using non-combustible Rockwool insulation, but “discounted” this option because they believed it would need to be too thick.

However, these calculations were basic. Mr McQuatt was shown assessments by the inquiry’s expert Paul Hyett which suggested the target could in fact have been met with Rockwool - a conclusion he accepted may have been “a bit more accurate” than the team’s estimates.

With Rockwool discounted, the architects and Max Fordham discussed using Kingspan – a plastic foam alternative that has higher insulating properties but is far more combustible.

Andrew McQuatt gives evidence to the inquiry (picture: Grenfell Tower Inquiry)
Andrew McQuatt gives evidence to the inquiry (picture: Grenfell Tower Inquiry)

However, when Mr McQuatt tried to log on to the Kingspan website, he realised he did not have a password. But he did have a password for rival manufacturer Celotex, so he went to their website instead. He identified a product made of polyisocyanurate (PIR) plastic branded FR5000, which had the requisite insulating property.

In an email to architect Bruce Sounes of Studio E in August 2012, he wrote that Celotex “is the only type of product that will give us the required performance”.

But he had carried out no checks about its fire safety or its compliance with regulations.

“It sounds so silly to say this now, with all that’s passed, but it just never occurred to me in any way that something that I could just go on to a website and select would be so unsafe or have the potential to be so unsafe,” he said. “I had done a lot of projects, I had seen it again and again and again. In my mind, it was just a common material that’s used.”

But what Mr Sounes saw was an expert recommending him a suitable product. He would put it into his specification with no further checks on its compliance.

‘A guinea pig for RS5000’

‘A guinea pig for RS5000’

Earlier in the week we heard from Ben Bailey (pictured above), the project manager from cladding sub-contractor Harley Facades, who explained how Celotex was finally purchased and used on the tower.

Ben Bailey is the son of Ray Bailey, managing director at Harley Facades. Aged just 25, Ben Bailey was leading only his second project, having graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in business and management in May 2013 – less than two years before he took over the £2.6m Harley contract at Grenfell.

He had an NVQ in construction site management and had helped out at Harley in school and university holidays, but he had no meaningful understanding of building regulations or how they applied to cladding systems. It was he who purchased the non-compliant Celotex insulation for the tower in 2015.

This story really started in 2014 when he was working on another project – Merit House in Colindale. Then, he had contacted Celotex to see if it had any suitable insulation products for the project.

Celotex had said it did not, but had gleaned from Mr Bailey that Harley Facades would soon be working on Grenfell Tower and made a note to follow up for a potential sale.

In summer 2014, Celotex got a pass in a large-scale test for one of its insulation products (RS5000 – not the FR5000 originally specified for Grenfell). This meant it could be used on high rises, but only in the exact combination tested, a system that used cement fibre panels.

In August 2014, a Celotex salesperson emailed Harley to say RS5000 had passed the test and was therefore “acceptable for use on buildings above 18m”.

In February 2015, Ben Bailey took over the discussions with Celotex about this purchase. He sent the company some design drawings. Jonathan Roome, a salesperson at Celotex, then replied in March to enquire which materials supplier he would buy the insulation from, noting that he would “make sure… pricing is looked after for you”.

Mr Bailey was then offered a 47.5% discount on the insulation by supplier SIG, knocking down the price to around £45,000.

He claimed that this discount was not unusual for a bulk order. “In terms of how do we arrive at a discount such as that, I think the answer is you order lots of it,” he said.

Later emails were then disclosed, which showed that Celotex approached Harley and asked permission to use Grenfell Tower as a “case study” for RS5000 – one of the first high rises it had ever been installed on.

“Did you get the impression that Grenfell Tower was, as it were, a guinea pig for RS5000?” asked Richard Millett, counsel to the inquiry.

“That’s not a thought that crossed my mind,” Mr Bailey replied.

The insulation switch

The insulation switch

In Mr Bailey’s evidence we also learned the answer to one of the mysteries that has hung over the refurbishment since the fire. Why was Celotex specified but 267 sq m of insulation made by rival firm Kingspan installed on the tower’s walls (pictured above, mid-installation)?

It transpired that in July 2015, supplier SIG “mistakenly sold an order of Celotex RS5000 intended for Grenfell Tower elsewhere”, meaning there was likely to be a delay of four working days in its delivery to the site.

“Are you joking?!” Mr Bailey emailed after being told this. “Is K15 [a Kingspan product] held in stock at the same thickness?”

He then asked his colleagues to check the certificate for the product to ensure it was the same as Celotex. He told the inquiry that the timestamp on an email suggesting he ordered it around a minute later was “wrong”.

Asked whether the delay was really so “critical” that the products needed to be switched, Mr Bailey said: “I appreciate what you’re saying, but when you have got limited materials, that delay can be quite significant. Because you could have teams of fixers not doing anything because there isn’t any material… Rydon [the lead contractor] was also putting pressure on sub-contractors to stick to programme.”

The client – Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) – was never informed about the product switch.

A weak link for fire

A weak link for fire

In a mammoth cross-examination over two days, Mr Bailey was also forced to answer some difficult questions about missing cavity barriers around windows.

Getting to the bottom of why these were not installed – as required by guidance – has been a major theme of this phase of the inquiry so far. It is important because the inquiry has already found that fire quickly broke out of the window in the kitchen and was able to rapidly enter flats as it ripped up the building.

Mr Bailey was grilled about an email he received from Chris Mort, technical director at cavity barrier supplier Siderise, in March 2015. Mr Mort said he had seen some Harley drawings and wrote: “I have highlighted the weak link so to speak in terms of fire.”

He attached a diagram on which he had drawn a bubble around the bracket at the top of the window and annotated “WEAK LINK FOR FIRE” in capital letters (pictured above). He then shaded in orange on another drawing to show that cavity barriers needed to come down to the top of the window head.

But Mr Bailey did not act on this email. It came in the context of a debate among the team about whether two hour fire stopping or 30 minute cavity barriers were required.

Mr Bailey claimed he believed that Mr Mort’s concern was applicable only if they were trying to achieve the two-hour protection, and as this route was not taken, the issue was not relevant. But this was not what Mr Mort meant. In his own witness statement, he said: “It was a clear error and I felt I should highlight it.”

Mr Bailey did not pass the warning on to the architects, building control or lead contractor Rydon.

“Why did you not go back to Mr Mort and ask him what he meant?” Mr Millett asked.

“I don’t know,” Mr Bailey replied.

“Why did you not take this to the architect and say, ‘The manufacturer has identified a weak link for fire on our drawings, could you please help us’?” asked Mr Millett.

“Because I read it in the context of a 120-minute firestop, and that issue was shortly afterwards cleared up, to my recollection,” Mr Bailey said in response.

‘I’ve got to put it to you that this was something of a missed opportunity’

‘I’ve got to put it to you that this was something of a missed opportunity’

On Wednesday the inquiry heard from Geof Blades, sales director at CEP Architectural Facades, the firm that cut the highly combustible polyethylene-cored cladding panels to shape, bent them to hang on the rails and sold them on to Harley for installation on the tower.

Mr Blades (pictured above) was primarily grilled about two things: whether he actively encouraged the use of aluminium composite material (ACM) for the tower, and why a safer ‘fire-rated’ product was not used on Grenfell.

As to the first issue, Mr Blades first got involved in the project in spring 2012 when the architects contacted him and asked for suggestions regarding “an appropriate cladding system”. He later attended meetings, bringing along the salesperson for Arconic – the firm that ultimately sold the product – and discussing ACM options.

CEP had an account with Arconic and fabricated mainly ACM products.

In January 2013, he was asked to provide a quote for “VM Zinc” cladding. But instead, he offered estimates of the cost of Reynobond (an Arconic ACM product) painted to look like zinc. “You put forward Reynobond when you weren’t asked for it – that’s right, isn’t it?” asked Mr Millett.

“Yes, at this point,” Mr Blades replied, explaining that he felt he was offering an option that would be “suitable” for the job.

He believed Reynobond was acceptable for high rises because he understood it to have a Class 0 rating for fire.

Mr Blades was shown an email from Deborah French, UK sales manager at Arconic, after Reynobond was selected. The letter offered him “lunch or dinner at some point” for his “hard work and perseverance in putting Reynobond forward”.

He told the inquiry: “All I can say to this is the three companies acted very professionally and I was never taken out for lunch by anybody.”

On the question of why a less combustible version of the product was not chosen, Mr Blades initially said he was not aware that one was available.

But he was then shown an email from 3A – a rival ACM supplier – that said it could offer FR. The email said of Arconic: “Alcoa can offer this [as well] but they will charge considerably more. Alcoa won’t change their core until they are forced to due to changes in the fire regulations, else Reynobond [the firm’s cladding product] will become more expensive.”

It also emerged that less combustible ACM was used in a mock-up of the cladding system on the walls of the tower, but when it came to the main job the companies reverted to polyethylene.

“I’ve got to put it to you that this was something of a missed opportunity?” said Mr Millett.

“With hindsight, yes,” Mr Blades replied.

The clerk of works

The clerk of works

The last witness of the week was Jon White (pictured above), a clerk of works, who said he was employed to act as “the eyes and ears” of KCTMO, monitoring what was happening on the construction site.

He was shown a description of the services he was supposed to provide, which included a requirement that he should be “familiar with legal requirements and checking that the work complies with them” and check design drawings.

But he did not check the drawings and had no real knowledge of the requirements of building regulations for a rainscreen cladding system, insisting that his role was more limited and focused mostly on how well residents were being treated.

He said he checked compliance by making sure that building control inspectors at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had signed off the work – but he accepted that he made no individual assessment himself.

Mr White made at least 10 trips up in a mast climber to inspect the cladding, going down over every floor and reporting any ‘snags’. But he did not realise it was made of a combination of combustible materials that did not comply with regulations.

He said that his impression of the cladding works overall was that it “looked very neat”.

“If a job looks neat and tidy, it’s a good way of knowing it’s being done properly,” he said.

The inquiry continues next week with another witness from the clerk of works.

Grenfell Tower Inquiry: week 11 headlines

Warning of ‘weak point for fire’ missed by cladding sub-contractor at Grenfell Tower
An email warning of a “weak point for fire” at the top of the planned new windows on Grenfell Tower did not result in the designs being amended to include fire barriers as required by guidance.

Insulation on Grenfell substituted to avoid delivery delay of just four working days
The cladding sub-contractor for Grenfell Tower substituted the insulation to avoid a delay in delivery of just four working days, without checking the new material’s fire performance.

Grenfell cladding manufacturer offered combustible product unless ‘forced’ not to, inquiry hears
The manufacturer of the cladding used on Grenfell would not offer a less combustible version of the product unless it was “forced to due to changes in the fire regulations” as doing so would make it “too expensive”, an email claimed.

Grenfell insulation selected without ‘basic’ fire checks to meet ‘aspirational’ thermal efficiency target
The insulation used on Grenfell Tower was originally suggested to meet an “aspirational” thermal efficiency target, without even any “basic checks” regarding its fire performance.

Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase two: weekly diaries

Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase two: weekly diaries

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

Week 11: ‘Did you get the impression Grenfell Tower was a guinea pig for this insulation?’

With witnesses from the cladding subcontractor, the firm which cut the deadly panels to shape and the clerk of works which inspected the job giving evidence this was week full of revelations. Peter Apps recaps the key points

Click here to read the full story

Week 12: ‘Would you accept that was a serious failing on your part?’

With the surveyor who inspected Grenfell Tower for compliance giving evidence, this was a crucial week from the inquiry. Dominic Brady and Peter Apps report

Click here to read the full story

Week 13: ‘Value for money is to be regarded as the key driver for this project’

With consultants to Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) giving evidence, attention at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry turned for this first time to the actions of the TMO and the council. Peter Apps reports

Click here to read the full story

Week 14: ‘Did it not occur to you at this point that your budget was simply too low?’

This week, for the first time in phase two, the inquiry heard from Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, the landlord that oversaw the fatal refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Lucie Heath reports

Click here to read the full story

Week 15: ‘Have you ever informed the police that you destroyed documents relevant to their investigation?’

Witnesses from the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) gave evidence for a second week, which began with a shocking revelation about withheld and destroyed evidence. Pete Apps recaps

Click here to read the full story

Week 16: ‘I conclude this was very serious evidence of professional negligence’

This week saw members of Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation finish giving evidence, before the inquiry’s expert witnesses took the stand to make some highly critical assessments of the work they had seen before and during the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Jack Simpson recaps

Click here to read the full story

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The organisations involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower

The organisations involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower

Picture: Jon Enoch

KCTMO: Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, the arm’s length management organisation responsible for providing housing management to Grenfell Tower. It was the end client which procured the refurbishment and oversaw it.

Rydon: Main contractor. It won a tender for the ‘design and build’ of the refurbishment project in March 2014, with a contract signed in October. It then held overall responsibility for the work, sub-contracting various elements to more specialist firms.

Celotex: The manufacturer of the RS5000 insulation which formed the majority of the insulation on the tower. The product is made from a combustible plastic called RS5000.

Arconic: A large multinational aluminium company, which manufactured and sold the Reynobond PE 55 cladding panels which were installed on the tower.

RBKC: As well as ultimately owning the tower, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea provided the ‘building control’ function for the refurbishment. This involved providing a completion certificate which effectively signed off the project as compliant with building regulations.

Studio E: Architect – first engaged by KCTMO as the principal designer for the wider refurbishment, it became a sub-contractor following Rydon’s appointment in 2014, working under the standard RIBA terms of business.

Harley: Specialist sub-contractor for the cladding. It was in contract with Studio E before Rydon was appointed, and then struck an agreement with Rydon for the design of the facade works.

Exova Warringtonfire: Fire engineer. Appointed by KCTMO in mid-2012 to provide a fire strategy for the building as it stood and for the refurbishment work. Three versions of the refurbishment version were produced, the last in November 2013. It provided ongoing advice after this point but was not directly engaged by Rydon.

CEP: The fabricator, responsible for cutting the panels into cassettes. CEP was one of a small number of ‘approved’ fabricators which worked closely with Arconic. Also supplied the window frames.

Max Fordham: The engineering consultant which worked for the TMO providing advice on energy strategy and sustainability. It was Max Fordham that identified Celotex insulation as a product which could meet the target insulation performance and was also thin enough to fit the design dimensions.

Kingspan: Produced and sold a smaller amount of combustible K15 insulation which was used on the tower.

Siderise: Produced and sold the cavity barriers.

Aluglaze: Produced and sold the window panels.

Artelia: The construction, design and management co-ordinator, employer’s agent and quantity surveyor, assisting KCTMO with its management of the contract.

Osborne Berry: The building contractor appointed by Harley to fit the cladding and window systems.

Kevin Lamb: An independently outsourced specialist cladding designer which provided Harley with detailed design drawings.

John Rowan and Partners: The clerk of works reporting to the TMO, responsible for site inspection and monitoring.

SD Plastering: A sub-contractor responsible for fitting the window surrounds.

JS Wright: A mechanical and electrical sub-contractor. It will have little involvement in module one.

Curtins Consulting: A structural engineer reporting first to KCTMO and then to Rydon. They will also have little involvement in module one.

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