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
This week, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry focused on the role of cladding contractor Harley Facades and some of the key employees involved in the refurbishment of the block were questioned.
This included estimator Mike Albiston, design manager Daniel Anketell-Jones and Kevin Lamb who was responsible for the fabrication of designs for the tower’s cladding system.
Much of the discussion over the past four days has revolved around the way in which the cladding contractor operated, the knowledge the company had on building regulations and the fire performance of materials used, as well as the use of cavity barriers to stop the fire spread throughout the building.
Rewinding on the cassette issue
The week kicked-off with the inquiry taking evidence from Mr Albiston, Harley’s estimator during the Grenfell refurbishment.
His role involved costing materials and labour on projects at tender stage so that Harley could come up with a price to competitively bid for projects. He was also involved in value engineering of projects, a construction term for looking at different ways a company could make savings on a scheme either through processes, labour or, importantly in this case, materials.
Despite having worked as an estimator for years, Mr Albiston had only worked for Harley for a year and only on a handful of projects. He told the inquiry that he had never received any training or professional development at the company and kept up with developments on fire safety and building regulations by reading construction press.
Many of the questions to Mr Albiston revolved around the NBS document for the Grenfell Tower project. The NBS is the document architects send out to potential bidders which provide details on specifications, designs and materials for a project.
The Grenfell NBS document revealed that the now infamous Reynobond ACM panels were not the first choice for the tower and a zinc-based product called Proteus HR was the type of cladding panels initially preferred by Studio E. Reynobond ACM, Alucobond and another zinc-based product were listed as potential alternatives.
Evidence showed that Harley was pushing for Reynobond at an early stage.
An email from Mark Harris, commercial manager at Harley, to Studio E explained that ACM would be the contractor’s preferred material choice and said it was “tried and tested” and the company was confident of its cost base. Mr Albiston confirmed that despite there being a number of alternatives to Proteus HR being put forward, Harley only ever got a detailed quote for the Reynobond product.
When asked by counsel Richard Millett if ACM was a foregone conclusion for Harley, Mr Albiston said this was not the case and that the Proteus HR panels were still an option.
Nevertheless, Mr Albiston had set to work assessing the savings if ACM was used instead of Proteus HR and found what he thought was a £576,000 saving. However, weeks after presenting this to the project team, he realised he had omitted a number of items from his original estimate and the saving was in fact only £376,000.
It was a “basic error” which Mr Albiston said he was “horrified” by. More importantly, it put pressure on Harley to minimise the financial impact. Fixed-face panels would see Harley incur a cost of £200,000; if the contractor opted for cassette fixed panels, the hit would be reduced to £160,000.
Cassette panels are cut in a way that allows them to be hung on hidden rails, whereas face-fixed panels are essentially bolted into place with rivets. It has previously been revealed during the inquiry that ACM panels installed in cassette form had a far worse fire performance than face-fixed panels – cassette panels performed a whole three grades lower when tested.
It appears that Harley then tried keep the mistake from the architects. Responding to an email from Bruce Sounes from Studio E, which seemed to indicate that cassette-style panels would be attached, he said the comments were “interesting” and may help with Harley’s “predicament”.
A further email from Mr Harris to Simon Lawrence, contracts manager at Rydon, showed that Harley continued to push for cassette-style panels. He said that although face-fixed panels could be achieved, cassette was Harley’s preference for “lots of reasons”.
When Mr Millet asked Mr Albiston whether Harley’s desire to opt for cassette installation was driven by financial interests and whether the “lots of reasons” was referring to the money Harley would save, Mr Albiston said: “Yes.”
Insulated from knowledge
It has been a common trend of the inquiry for witnesses to apportion responsibility over certain areas of compliance to other parts of the Grenfell refurbishment supply chain. The evidence from Harley was no different.
Tuesday and Wednesday saw Mr Anketell-Jones, Harley’s design manager during the Grenfell project, questioned relentlessly by counsel Kate Grange on his knowledge of building regulations and fire safety performance.
Mr Anketell-Jones was the design manager at Grenfell, a role he said involved managing the designers to ensure they were on programme and provide some oversight of the structural work on the tower.
During the questioning on his knowledge of the materials, Mr Anketell-Jones often responded by stressing that at the time of the refurbishment, his design responsibilities stretched to only structural design and he was not educated in the areas of fire safety at the time.
Evidence was then presented to him over instances where it was suggested that he may have acquired some knowledge of building regulations and fire safety in tower blocks.
He was asked about a conference he attended, where academics gave a presentation that focused on the mechanisms of fire spread on cladded buildings and included a series of case studies on major cladding fires in the UK and abroad.
Mr Anketell-Jones said that he could not remember the talk and said that he was either out of the room or not concentrating because it was not his area of focus at Harley at the time.
Ms Grange also presented him with an email he sent to insulation manufacturers Celotex asking them for information on the testing of the Celotex RS5000 material, including how it was tested, where and how it was fixed.
Responding to this, he said he had no understanding of what the email was referring to and was merely passing on what the experts had said to him.
The Celotex RS5000 material used on Grenfell Tower was a newly launched product by the insulation manufacturer and was the first Celotex product that could be used on buildings over 18m – but, crucially, this was only when used with cement fibre cladding.
An email from Jonathan Roome, major projects and specification manager at Celotex, to Mr Anketell-Jones included an attachment with information about RS500 and when it could be used on buildings 18m and in combination with what cladding materials.
Mr Anketell-Jones said that he did not remember reading this email or the attached document and was not educated in this area.
However, despite Mr Anketell-Jones professing to having no knowledge of the fire properties of the cladding or insulation, discussion then turned to an email he sent in early 2015.
In the email, discussing the need for cavity barriers around the windows at Grenfell, Mr Anketell-Jones wrote: “There is no point in ‘fire stopping’, as we all know, the ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire!”
When asked whether this comment about the performance of cladding was consistent with his previous evidence that he was concerned only with structural issues on Grenfell cladding, he said it was not an area he had been trained in but knew from “bits and pieces” he had picked up that ACM was a unable to resist fire for long periods.
What Mr Anketell-Jones painted a picture of was a company that was not up to date with whether the materials being used on the building were compliant.
He explained that there was never anyone designated within the company at the time of the Grenfell refurbishment that was tasked with “thinking about fire safety”. He also revealed that there had not been a technical manager – the role he said would be responsible for compliance – in place at the company between late 2012 and late 2015.
Instead he said that project managers had the responsibility of checking compliance on their projects, however this would not be through their own knowledge but instead by checking with the architect or building control.
Kevin Lamb, freelance designer during the Grenfell refurbishment
After four sessions of interrogating Mr Anketell-Jones, on Wednesday morning it was the turn of Mr Lamb, designer at Harley, to answer questions about his role throughout the refurbishment.
Mr Lamb was brought in by Mr Anketell-Jones on a freelance contract to help Harley, due to concerns that it did not have enough design resource to fulfil the Grenfell contract. This was highlighted in a email from commercial manager Mr Harris when commenting on the contractor’s construction team for the Grenfell ahead of Harley signing the contract. He said simply “we don’t f*cking have one” and stated that he was extremely concerned by this.
Mr Lamb had worked with Harley previously on the Chalcots Estate in 2008 and was brought in on a freelance contract to fill the design gap Harley had. He admitted to the inquiry that his expertise was mainly designing curtain wall and glazing systems, rather than cladding. He had not worked on a cladding project in six years.
Mr Lamb’s recruitment involved a phone call from Mr Anketell-Jones and a face-to-face meeting with him and Harley managing director Ray Bailey. There was no formal interview and no check of his qualifications. Mr Lamb was paid £10,572 for his services.
But the understanding of Mr Lamb’s role differs between Harley and Mr Lamb himself. According to Mr Anketell-Jones, Mr Lamb was brought in as lead designer and would be taking responsibility for the designs.
Mr Anketell-Jones said that as far as he was concerned Mr Lamb was working for Harley and was working on the pretence that he was responsible for his designs and would be sending them through to Rydon and the architect.
He later admitted that there were no quality control processes in place to check Mr Lamb’s work and that it was only his role to check that Mr Lamb was working to program and deadlines.
Mr Lamb said it was his assumption that he would be closely supervised by Harley’s management and said that he would send all of his drawings through to its team to be checked, and design meetings took place regularly.
When asked whether he understood he would be getting supervision from Harley, Mr Lamb said: “Yes, you wouldn’t expect a client to employ a third-party design source and let them get on with it, that would be very dangerous indeed.”
Emails were then presented which appeared to show that Mr Anketell-Jones had seen drawings and had made some amendments to these.
However, Mr Anketell-Jones said that these would be purely structural changes and would have no influence on materials used or fire safety performance.
Cavity barriers took centre stage on Thursday as Mr Lamb’s design drawings came under scrutiny.
In the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase one report, chair Sir Martin-Moore-Bick identified the lack of cavity barriers above the windows as a significant reason for why the fire could have moved out of the first flat and ignite the combustible ACM cladding panels.
During questioning, it emerged that cavity barriers were not actually included in any of the initial drawings from Mr Lamb that were presented to the architects September 2014. Mr Lamb explained that this was down to being early in the project.
However, even after architect Neil Crawford checked the drawings without cavity barriers in January 2015, there was no mention of missing cavity barriers in his annotations.
It was not until March that Mr Lamb included cavity barriers in his drawings. These included horizontal barriers at each floor level and vertical barriers up each column that supported the tower.
When asked if this showed that cavity barriers were an afterthought, Mr Lamb said: “No, not at all.”
However, even after the cavity barriers were designed in, they crucially did not include cavity barriers around the windows.
Approved Document B states that all window openings should be closed with cavity barriers, including openings around windows. Mr Lamb said during his evidence that he was aware of Approved Document B guidance around cavity barriers and considered it to “a degree” during his work on the tower.
When asked directly by Ms Grange if he was aware that not including cavity barriers around windows was a departure from what was said in Approved Document B, Mr said: “Loosely, but I was also aware that there were other routes to compliance, a fire engineered solution.”
Mr Lamb believed that despite the lack of cavity barriers potentially going against the official guidance, the expected the architect, which he understood was supported by a fire engineer, to have come up with another solution that would have meant a lack of the cavity barrier in this area was compliant. He said that there were many routes to compliance and he understood that a fire engineered solution could meet requirements of building regulations even if designed differently to Approved Document B guidance.
It is important to point out that Grenfell was not the first Harley project to be hit by a fire. In 2012, a fire hit Taplow House on the Chalcots Estate in Camden. Luckily nobody was killed and the fire was largely contained. The installation of cavity barriers, made from non-combustible Rockwool, was seen as one of the key reasons the fire was not much worse.
When asked if information or learning from the Chalcots fire had ever been passed on by Harley, both Mr Lamb and Mr Anketell-Jones said they had been told about this or been given any information on the fire.
Mr Anketell-Jones’ assessment of cavity barriers around windows on other construction projects was a cause for concern. He said he had seen cavity barriers not used on “lots and lots of projects” and said he did not think it was appreciated in the industry that you needed cavity barriers in windows for rainscreen systems as well as masonry systems.
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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
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
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
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
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