The Grenfell Inquiry this week heard the shocking story of how the manufacturer of the tower’s insulation “manipulated” official testing and marketed its product “dishonestly”. Pete Apps tells the story
We have known since the very early stages of the Grenfell Inquiry that there was something seriously wrong with a crucial fire test of the insulation product used on the walls of the tower.
This week, we heard the full, ugly story from three witnesses intimately involved in this process. But it is necessary to begin this story with a couple of explanations.
An image of a large-scale cladding test rig, before and after the fire (picture: BRE)
Before 2006, official guidance banned the use of combustible insulation on buildings more than 18m tall (around six storeys). But a subtle change to the rules that year (lobbied for by insulation manufacturers) loosened this: combustible insulation could now be used as part of a system that passed a large-scale ‘BS8414’ test.
Only the entire system tested – to the very last detail – was permitted to be used. But this is not what happened in practice.
In 2006, the K15 product of an insulation firm called Kingspan passed the BS 8414 test. The company began marketing it for use on high-rises and K15 ended up installed on hundreds of buildings in a large variety of combinations – many of which bore no resemblance to the tested system.
Celotex is also a manufacturer of combustible insulation and a major competitor to Kingspan. However, none of its products had passed a BS 8414 test, so it was locked out of the lucrative world of high-rise buildings.
The company was keenly aware of this, even compiling a spreadsheet of all the jobs it missed out on as a result, so it began seeking a way to compete.
It’s worth saying something about Celotex’s culture here. Until 2012, the company was owned by private equity firm AAC Capital Partners, and former employee Jamie Hayes said AAC drove Celotex to be as profitable as possible in order to sell it. Then, in 2012, AAC sold Celotex to giant multinational firm Saint Gobain.
This precipitated a further change: the new owner wanted Celotex to boost its profits by developing new products, with a specific target of 15% of new profits to come from new products. Senior management was hauled to meetings at Saint Gobain’s Paris headquarters for updates.
An obvious target was the above-18m market.
Celotex’s plan was to take its FR5000 product and rebrand it as RS5000. It would then put RS5000 through the BS 8414 test and if it passed, sell into the high-rise market for the first time.
This project fell to a new recruit: Jon Roper.
Jon Roper was 22, fresh out of university with a business studies degree, when he joined Celotex. He had no technical knowledge to speak of.
He was asked to investigate how Kingspan was getting into the above-18m market and his work was effective: he learned the firm’s K15 product had passed the BS 8414 test, using it to obtain certification from industry bodies, which strengthened its case that K15 was acceptable for high-rises.
But there was a problem: Kingspan’s test was unrepresentative. It had used a cement particle board, which was just not a product used for cladding systems in the real world.
Mr Roper discovered that most of the industry simply didn’t understand the rules: they believed that the test pass meant Kingspan could be widely used.
“An architect will be told that K15 is applicable for above 18m… and that suffices from their perspective,” he wrote in an email on 1 November 2013.
“Contractors opt for more cost effective solutions and although they are liable for what goes into that building, they do not know enough about the fire test to challenge.”
He then explained it was unlikely that Celotex could pass a test using a realistic cladding panel, and that properly explaining system-testing to the industry would require “a complete re-education of the [market]”, which may well attract legal challenge from Kingspan.
He suggested Celotex could either try to pass the BS 8414 test with RS5000 in a similar way to Kingspan, as well as market its as suitable for general use, or it could back out.
“Do we take the view that our product realistically shouldn’t be used behind most cladding panels because in the event of a fire it would burn?” he wrote.
Mr Roper explained all of this in a slideshow to the company’s senior management team on 4 November.
He claimed there was a divergence of views at this meeting. The head of technical, Rob Warren, wanted to play by the rules: pass a test with as realistic a system as possible and market RS5000 for use in that system.
But he said his manager, Paul Evans, and the managing director, Craig Chambers, differed. They felt this would “limit sales”. However, Mr Evans denied this when he gave evidence.
Whatever took place in the meeting, Celotex set about trying to pass a test. One was arranged for February 2014 at a facility owned by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and run by BRE employee Phil Clark.
The first test combined RS5000 with a non-combustible cladding panel made from cement fibre. This combination failed catastrophically: the panels cracked from the heat of the fire and once flames entered the gap between the panels and the insulation, fire ripped through the mock 9m wall that had been built.
But Celotex did not give up. Discussions were held as to what needed to be done to pass second time around.
Mr Roper said one idea came from Mr Clark himself: thicken the non-combustible cladding panel to stop it cracking.
“Phil said that he had ‘seen worse fails’ and suggested that Celotex might want to strengthen the outside of the test rig… he thought that thickening the panels to 12mm might suffice,” said Mr Roper in his statement.
But there was another idea. Mr Hayes suggested adding magnesium oxide boards (which have strong fire-resisting properties) to strategic areas near the top of the rig where the temperature monitors that record the pass or fail criteria were located.
He said Mr Evans signed off this change, although Mr Evans denied this, saying he did not know of the boards at all.
“Be careful here. This isn’t just that you can’t recall one way or the other; you’re saying, are you, that both Mr Roper in his evidence yesterday and Mr Hayes in his evidence here… are false?” Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked him.
“What I’m saying is that I didn’t know,” he replied. “I haven’t taken that information or understood that information for whatever reason.”
The team also agreed to reduce the ventilation gaps between the external cladding panels, to give the flames less chance of breaking into the cavity.
With all these changes, the RS5000 passed a second test in May. Celotex had the pass it craved. But it was not going to be open about how it had achieved it.
Paul Evans gives evidence to the inquiry (picture: Grenfell Tower Inquiry)
On 14 May, Mr Roper put together a slideshow presentation for the senior management team, outlining how the testing had gone. He included the information about the failed test and the changes made for the second – including the addition of fire-resisting boards.
Mr Roper told the inquiry that Paul Evans, his manager and head of marketing, presented these slides. However, Mr Evans denied this.
Nonetheless, Mr Roper (who claimed he was not present) said he was told of a “heated exchange” following the presentation between Mr Evans and Mr Warren about what to do. He said Mr Warren wanted to present the test pass as only justifying the system tested, while Mr Evans wanted to promote the product for general use above 18m. Mr Evans very firmly denied this.
Nonetheless, what happened as a result is clear – Mr Roper was told to produce a new slideshow for “general business use” without the reference to the failed February test and the use of the fire-resisting boards.
“You knew at the time, surely, that this slide was downright misleading?” Mr Millett asked.
“Yes, I did,” said Mr Roper.
“Did you not feel at the time a sense that that was wrong?” Mr Millett said.
“I felt incredibly uncomfortable with it. I recall going home that evening, and I still lived with my parents at the time and mentioned that to them, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable with what I was being asked to do,” he said.
“It was a failure of courage, and a failure of character and a failure of moral fibre on my part not to do so”
But with the senior management set on course, there was no one to raise his concerns with. He says Mr Evans specifically told him to remove the slides – something Mr Evans denied.
Then the test report came back from the BRE. This, too, contained no reference to the fire-resisting boards – even though Mr Roper and Mr Hayes said they had “no doubt” that the BRE’s Mr Clark was aware they had been used.
They were visible in one photograph. Mr Roper wrote to them to ask for it to be removed, inventing a spurious reason to justify it, something he said he had been told by Mr Evans.
“Do I detect from what you’re saying that you were instructed by Mr Evans to create a false record of the reasons why you wanted the change?” said Mr Millett
“Yes,” he replied. “I had to come up with a reason to ask for that photograph to be omitted.”
Mr Evans once more firmly denied this.
The situation got worse with the marketing of the product. None of the test literature described the test as it had been carried out – omitting reference to the fire-resisting boards and repeatedly claiming that the product was “suitable for use on buildings above 18m” without making it clear that this was caveated.
Asked why he didn’t challenge this presentation of the test, Mr Hayes said: “My understanding was and is now that a decision had been made by senior management of Celotex. I didn’t know who I should speak to or could speak to. I lacked the life experience to find the right way forward and it was a failure of courage, and a failure of character and a failure of moral fibre on my part not to do so.”
Asked whether he accepted his approval of the marketing was dishonest, Mr Roper said: “I do, yes. I felt entirely uncomfortable, but equally useless in the whole lead-up from testing through to marketing through to launch. It was one of the contributory factors for me leaving my role as product manager, because… I knew there was going to be a level of questioning that came into the business post-launch that would essentially mean that I would have to lie for commercial gain again.
“It was clearly within the culture of that business at that time and I’m sorry for my part in it.”
Celotex’s own marketing literature was one thing, but what it really wanted was a certificate supporting this claim from an impartial body. It sought one from a body called Local Authority Building Control (LABC).
This group represents council building inspectors, but also has a commercial operation that provides certification.
The securing of this certificate began in January when Mr Roper emailed to enquire how Kingspan had achieved its certification from LABC.
“As the board [K15] is described as Class 0, it can be termed a material of limited combustibility and… suitable for use within the wall construction even at heights above 18m,” wrote David Ewing, the firm’s technical sales director.
This may sound like jargon, but the important thing to know is that it was critically and fundamentally wrong. Class 0 is a much lower standard than limited combustibility and of no relevance to the use of insulation on high-rises. Mr Roper knew this, but said nothing.
“That was intentional, deliberate and dishonest?”
“Is this right – you decided not to challenge him on his misunderstanding and conflation of Class 0 with limited combustibility, but to go along with it and capitalise on that?” asked Mr Millett.
“I was told not to raise that issue,” said Mr Roper.
Mr Roper then emailed suggested wording to the LABC for the certificate, which he had copied from Kingspan, saying the product could be used in different systems and on high rises.
This wording was incorporated wholesale into the certificate – even including a typo from Mr Roper. This description meant it was seriously misleading.
“That was intentional, deliberate and dishonest?” asked Mr Millett.
“I believe so, yes,” he said.
This is the certificate that Celotex emailed to Harley Facades – the subcontractor that purchased the insulation and fitted it to the walls of Grenfell Tower. The evidence of the building control officer who eventually signed off the tower is that he viewed it, too.
Celotex also wanted the approval of the National House Building Council (NHBC). This is a private firm that signs off buildings as compliant, as an alternative to local councils.
Its approval was harder to come by.
In fact, it began rejecting RS5000’s use outright. In one major example in spring 2015, it ordered contractor Ardmore to remove the insulation from a high-rise where it had been partially installed.
This provoked a furious compliant to Celotex from the contractor, which wrote: “Clearly, you are an international supplier and manufacturer of some repute and we are amazed that you send products to market that are not suitable for their intended use.”
As a result, Celotex held meetings with the NHBC to try to talk it round. But in one heated meeting in May 2015, its representatives angrily told Mr Evans that the company’s arguments were “stupid”.
Internally, the firm pondered why NHBC was taking such a tough line. The belief was it had figured out the problems with the way combustible insulation was being marketed and was concerned about its own liability.
“Clearly you are an international supplier and manufacturer of some repute and we are amazed that you send products to market that are not suitable for their intended use.”
“Do they insure fire damage? Would they be liable for deaths?” said one internal document.
But in July 2016, something changed – NHBC published guidance that said both Celotex’s RS5000 and Kingspan’s K15 could be used without question in various “common” systems, including the aluminium composite material that was placed on Grenfell.
“Were you not surprised by this apparent volte face, this change of position, about-face, from the NHBC within less than a year?” Mr Millett asked Mr Evans.
“It did seem surprising at the time, yes,” said Mr Evans.
“Was that change as a result of the lobbying of the NHBC by players in the market – I’m not necessarily including Celotex in that – to achieve NHBC buy-in?” asked Mr Millett.
“I don’t know what other organisations or companies were doing. All I know is that we had met with the NHBC on a few occasions to talk about specific matters,” he replied.
We know from opening statements by lawyers acting for the bereaved and survivors that Kingspan lobbied the NHBC and boasted internally of “slowly educating” the firm.
It is not just Celotex’s BS 8414 test of RS5000 that was called into question this week. We also heard that the insulation had previously passed another fire test and achieved a Class 0 rating in 2013 – under its prior branding of FR5000.
In 2017, this test was rerun to gain a separate certificate for the new RS5000 brand. It performed badly, failing both parts of the test inside three minutes.
Class 0, as stated, is irrelevant to the use of insulation on high-rises, but the claim that it met this standard had helped persuade the market it was safe.
Finally, we also heard the company was juking numbers relating to the actual insulation performance of the product.
Four to six measurements of thermal performance were taken every day. But only the best would be logged onto the system and the rest discarded. Internal documents described this as “a high degree of data management and manipulation” and warned that it “could be identified by an auditor if they followed the process trail”.
Mr Evans was eventually disciplined and resigned for his part in this after the Grenfell Tower fire. He suggested that his departure was “orchestrated to remove senior members of the business before the Grenfell Inquiry commenced”.
The inquiry continues next week.
A former technical officer at the company that supplied the insulation for Grenfell Tower has said that he suggested using additional fire barriers to pass a key safety test amid pressure to increase profits from the multinational business that owned the firm.
Britain’s biggest building control company went from rejecting the “flammable” insulation used on Grenfell as inappropriate for high rises to accepting it without question in just over a year amid lobbying from the industry, the inquiry heard today.
The company that sold the combustible insulation for use on Grenfell Tower “intentionally and dishonestly” misled a building control body into issuing a certificate that helped secure its use on the tower, the inquiry heard today.
The company that made the insulation for use on Grenfell Tower encouraged its product manager to lie to customers about “deliberately misleading” testing that purported to make it suitable for use on tall buildings, the inquiry heard today.
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
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
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
Week 17: ‘It’s hard to make a note about this because we are not clean’
The start of the second module of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase two came with some huge revelations about the companies that sold the products used in the cladding system. Peter Apps reports
Week 18: ‘It was just reckless optimism wasn't it?’
As the inquiry began cross-examining witnesses for the second module of its phase two work, the picture surrounding just how Grenfell Tower ended up wrapped in such dangerous materials became a little clearer. Nathaniel Barker was keeping an eye on proceedings
Week 19: ‘And that was intentional, deliberate, dishonest?’
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry this week heard the shocking story of how the insulation manufacturer "manipulated" official testing and marketed its product "dishonestly". Peter Apps tells the story
Week 20: ‘We were outed by a consultant who we then had to fabricate a story to’
This week the inquiry investigated the actions of Kingspan – the manufacturer of one of the insulation products used in the tower’s cladding system. Dominic Brady reports