The story of insulation giant Kingspan’s testing and marketing of its combustible insulation for high rises was unpacked in minute detail this week. Peter Apps reports
The Kingspan witnesses who gave evidence this week were walked through much of the evidence of last week, before going on to some substantial new disclosures.
We will pick the story up from 2008 – but to do so, it is necessary to provide some brief background. At this point, Kingspan was selling its Kooltherm K15 insulation for use on high-rise buildings based on a ‘large-scale test’ pass from 2005 and subsequent authentication from respected certifying body the British Board of Agremént (BBA).
But there were two problems. First, the test result only justified the very precise mock wall build-up, which had been tested, but K15 was being sold for use in a much wider variety of systems.
And second, the product had actually changed. In 2006, new technology had introduced a new chemical composition and perforations to the foil facing of the product. When retested in 2007 and 2008 it failed dramatically, with the tests described internally as a “raging inferno” and the insulation “burning on its own steam”.
This product change was kept a secret, even from other arms of the Kingspan business. But the suitability of the product for high rises was still raising concern in the industry.
The inquiry was shown multiple instances of clients questioning the suitability of K15 for high rises.
The most shocking example came in October 2008 when contractor Bowmer and Kirkland emailed Kingspan’s Phil Heath (pictured above) to query whether the insulation could be used in a project with what was described as "ceramic stone" cladding.
The contractor noted that Kingspan had “not substantiated” why K15 was suitable for a high-rise building and “[appeared] to be relying wholly” on the single 2005 Building Research Establishment (BRE) test.
“He is absolutely right, isn’t he, in what he says there?” asked Kate Grange, counsel to the inquiry.
“He is, yes,” Mr Heath replied.
But Mr Heath forwarded the email to a friend, writing: “I think Bowmer & Kirkland… are getting me confused with someone who gives a dam [sic].
“I’m trying to think of a way out of this one, imagine a fire running up this tower !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Any ideas…?”
Mr Heath told the inquiry that this friend was terminally ill and he was “in a dark place” as a result.
The contractor then asked a specialist, Wintech, for an opinion. “Kingspan keep repeating that the product has been tested to BS8414 and therefore is suitable for use in buildings over 18 metres. What they fail to say is that it is suitable for use only in the configuration as tested,” a consultant wrote.
This email was forwarded to Mr Heath.
This time, he wrote internally: “Wintech can go f*ck themselves, and if they are not careful we’ll sue the arse [off] them.”
He apologised for this “unprofessional” language when questioned.
All of this left Kingspan with a problem. It needed further justification of its claim that the product was suitable for high rises to shut down the concerns. But it also appeared to be unable to pass further tests.
What it did was seek further certification, to add to its BBA certificate.
In 2009, it approached the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) seeking a certificate. This group was the representative body for council building control inspectors, but also had a line in getting its members to write certificates for the use of various products, which other inspectors would rely on.
This certificate, issued in May 2009 by inspectors at Hereford Council, went much further than the BBA had. It said the product “can be considered a material of limited combustibility” and as a result was suitable in all situations “including those parts of a building more than 18m above ground”.
This was seriously wrong. Limited combustibility really means non-combustible – or at least close to it. Only insulations spun from rock or glass wool or the more pricey cellular glass can meet it. Plastics like Kingspan never can.
But Kingspan’s team did not seek a correction.
“GREAT NEWS!” Mr Heath wrote in an internal email, announcing the certificate. He called the line on limited combustibility the “highlight”.
Dr Malcolm Rochefort (pictured above), former technical director at Kingspan, who also gave evidence this week, emailed Mr Heath to ask what evidence had been submitted to the LABC to support this claim.
(Dr Rochefort is a crucial figure in Kingspan's history - a chemist who holds the patent to its phenolic foam insulation).
“We can be very convincing when we need to be,” he replied. “We threw every bit of fire test data we could at him, we probably blocked his server. In the end I think the LABC convinced themselves Kooltherm is the best thing since sliced bread. We didn’t even have to get any real ale down him!”
Questioned about this, Mr Heath confirmed that the only real test data Kingspan had sent to the LABC was the 2005 test.
Both witnesses claimed the line that the product could be “considered” a material of limited combustibility referred only to the system it was tested in. But Ms Grange said it clearly went further than this.
“I’m suggesting to you that you knew at the time that the certificate was utterly misleading,” she said to Mr Heath.
“At the time, I don’t believe it was, but on reflection and reading it now, I can see that, yes,” he replied.
So happy were the team with the certificate, they decided to stop testing the insulation and rely entirely on the certificate to win work.
“At in excess of £15k/test, both the sales and business development teams should be adept enough to use their tool kit to the full,” Mr Heath wrote in an email.
The LABC certificate would later be described as “garbage” by inspectors at another building control firm, the National House Building Council (NHBC). “Hereford LABC didn’t know what they were talking about,” an NHBC email from 2014 said.
These questions quietened down once the certificate from the LABC was obtained, but concerns began to bubble up again in 2013.
By October 2013, Wintech was once more raising concerns about the use of K15. Discussions were held and the firm asked Kingspan to carry out more testing to justify the use of the insulation in high rises within six months.
Wintech said if this did not happen it would “have no alternative but to make public our concerns to the industry at large”.
This threat triggered Kingspan recommencing testing for the first time in seven years to try to satisfy Wintech that its product was compliant.
Pressure was also mounting from NHBC, the country’s largest private inspector, which also wanted to see more testing to justify the continued use of the product.
This testing would begin in January 2014, but once more it would not be quite what it seemed.
The first test, which paired K15 with high-pressure laminate cladding, failed. A second test in March on a similar system also came up short. But this time, Kingspan did not think it should have.
The test was stopped after flames breached the top of the rig within the 60-minute duration of the test. This was a failure – but only under recently published pass/fail criteria, replacing prior rules that would have considered only the first 30 minutes.
Kingspan decided to dispute this result with the BRE.
“Surely we risk making fools of ourselves?” wrote one member of the team in an internal email.
Tony Millichap, head of technical (pictured above), did not think so. He noted in an email that the firm intended to “sow some seeds to influence that result”, adding that “in the event we do not get what we want, stronger tactics will be employed”.
So it proved. The firm copied in its lawyer into an email to the BRE that said: “We would interpret this as a positive result… and should this be interpreted any other way by yourselves we would intend to appeal the result formally.”
The BRE did not back down and the test was deemed a failure.
The next test was in July with terracotta tile cladding. This time, finally, it passed.
“F*cking happy days!” wrote one Kingspan employee internally. “I think we have just pissed over [rival manufacturers] Knauf, Xtratherm and Rockwool!”
But something was amiss. The insulation tested was not the same as the K15 that Kingspan had been selling for almost a decade. Instead it was a new research and development product that had a foil facer double the thickness of the one on the market and a different chemical thought to improve the fire performance.
Nonetheless, without hesitation, Kingspan began writing to contractors to promote the news of its result to the market, declining to mention that it was on a substantially altered product from the one they were selling. The technical team were told to respond to client queries within 48 hours with the new test data.
One run of internal emails suggested that Mr Millichap may have had some qualms about this. A colleague complained that “slap head Millichap” felt that the new testing “wasn’t a compelling story”, while another wrote “what planet is he on”.
“I had pointed out that if we were moving to that product, which was fully the intention, then obviously that product needs to be identified as a different product,” Mr Millichap said when questioned.
But this was not to be. Kingspan would eventually drop the new trial product, but continue to use the test evidence to sell the old K15.
Asked whether this was appropriate, Mr Millichap repeatedly said the firm had genuinely intended to switch to the new trial product eventually.
“But how could you justify that interim period of carrying on selling standard K15?” Ms Grange asked.
“Only on the basis that, you know, we would be supporting new specifications that would be satisfied with the new product, but I appreciate there is a risk that that wouldn’t be the case,” he replied.
Shortly after this test pass, the situation surrounding NHBC’s concerns about Kingspan escalated.
Brian Martin, a government official responsible for the building regulations covering fire safety, wrote to the NHBC saying he had recently been warned about the use of combustible insulation on high rises (apparently a reference to an industry summit for which Inside Housing obtained the minutes in 2018).
“Allegedly – several buildings have been erected where PIR insulation has been used in cladding panels well over 18m in height. Apparently people are under the impression that PIR is a material of limited combustibility (which it isn’t). Again, allegedly, many of these buildings are blocks of flats,” he wrote, describing the email as a “friendly warning” to the NHBC not to sign off these towers as safe.
Steve Evans, head of technical operations at the NHBC, replied: “The issue is in respect of the use of Kingspan Kooltherm K15 Rainscreen Board in buildings over 18m in height.
“The confusion has arisen from Kingspan’s statement that their product is acceptable for use in a building >18m. However, the product is made from a generic type of polyurethane foam which is, by nature, combustible.”
Mr Evans forwarded this email to Kingspan and it fell to Mr Millichap’s team to respond. Mr Millichap said internally that he was briefing the company’s solicitor.
There was something wrong in Mr Evans email - Kingspan's product is phenolic not polyurethane. But apart from that, as Mr Millichap accepted, it was entirely correct.
Nonetheless a letter was drafted back to the NHBC complaining about inaccuracies. It read: “Our significant test portfolio alongside many precedents in gaining approval, standards lobbying and extended involvement with fire consultants over many years has afforded Kingspan with a deep understanding of the regulatory framework in this area.”
He then said the firm had completed “two successful [large-scale] tests this year”. This was a reference to the March and July tests – both done on the new trial product and one that had in fact been a failure.
“What I’m going to suggest to you is that actually it was a deliberate lie, all of this. It wasn’t just inadvertent – it was a deliberate strategy on the part of Kingspan to deceive not only the NHBC and other professionals, but by now potentially DCLG in giving the response you have just given,” said Ms Grange (pictured above).
“That was never my intention,” replied Mr Millichap.
The NHBC’s concerns did not diminish following this letter. In October 2014 Kingspan told the NHBC it would seek the help of fire consultants at Arup to vouch for the safety of its product.
This turned out to be Dr Barbara Lane (pictured above), now an inquiry expert. Kingspan requested she write “something to satisfy the NHBC that we are meeting and trying to move towards a situation where we can jointly put together a set of rules for the safe use of our material at height”.
Dr Lane declined. While she was happy to say they were meeting, she added: “I do not want you to be under any impression that we may agree or support anything you may have on the table.”
Separately, she wrote to the NHBC and said: “Arup are actually deeply concerned about the lack of understanding of assemblies and the ongoing incorrect use of test reports… The use of highly combustible materials in residential buildings is now simply an accident waiting to happen.”
The NHBC’s concern mounted. It sent an email to Kingspan outlining the risks in blocks of flats (sleeping risk, stay put strategy and more).
And then in February 2015, its patience ran out. It wrote to Mr Millichap, copying in Kingspan’s chief executive Gene Murtagh.
It said it was going to start rejecting K15 for high rises unless builders could provide separate justification and would “inform our builder customers of our concerns at the earliest opportunity”.
Kingspan’s response came directly from its solicitors. It warned that the NHBC’s action would cause Kingspan “very significant financial loss” and “constitute negligent misstatement and defamation”.
The letter referred to the test passes in 2005 and July 2014 – neither of which had been conducted on the K15 actually sold. Asked why this was not made clear, Mr Millichap said the letter “was compiled with reference from lots of colleagues at the time”. He claimed that Kingspan was still “continuing to try and work collaboratively [with the NHBC] to reach an agreement”.
“Is the reality that you were just in too deep by this point?” Ms Grange asked. “K15 was on too many tall buildings and you had defended its position for so long, it was simply inconceivable that you would change tack?”
“No, I don’t believe it is,” said Mr Millichap. “We were working with good intentions towards a product that was suitable.”
Towards the end of Mr Heath’s evidence, Ms Grange asked him why all of the emails showed such little concern for the most fundamental matter: life safety.
“It’s there in black and white, isn’t it?” she said. “We see a complete absence of any consideration of life safety; that’s right, isn’t it?”
“I don’t believe that was the mindset of Kingspan at that time, but on reflection I can see why you think that, yes,” replied Mr Heath.
The inquiry continues with further Kingspan witnesses next week.
(Picture: Dr Barbara Lane/Grenfell Tower Inquiry)
Government officials were warned in summer 2014 that combustible Kingspan insulation was being used on high rises despite the fact testing did not confirm its safety, emails disclosed by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry show
Kingspan’s assertion that its combustible insulation product could be used on high-rise buildings was a “house of cards” based on a single test from 2005 which has now been withdrawn
Kingspan relied on fire tests run on a new trial product to continue selling its combustible insulation product for high rises after being challenged over its use in 2013
A Kingspan manager said that professionals raising fire safety concerns relating to the company’s insulation could “go fuck themselves” or the firm would “sue the arse [off] them” in an email disclosed by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry
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
Grenfell Tower: a timeline of the refurbishment
Following the conclusion of module one of the Grenfell Inquiry’s second phase, Peter Apps presents a timeline of the key moments during the fatal refurbishment of the west London tower block.
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
Week 21: 'It's there in black and white isn't it? We see a complete absence of any consideration of life safety'
The story of insulation giant Kingspan’s testing and marketing of its combustible insulation for high rises was unpacked in minute detail this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 22: 'All we do is lie in here'
In the third week of evidence from insulation giant Kingspan, the inquiry continued to uncover shocking details about the firm’s behaviour both before and after the Grenfell Tower fire. Lucie Heath reports.