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
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry returned this week following a 17-week halt in proceedings amid the coronavirus-induced lockdown. Evidence was heard from two of the project’s fire engineering consultants, Dr Clare Barker and Terry Ashton.
There were also concerns about the time the inquiry will take, access for survivors and – on Tuesday morning – a powerful intervention about race.
Elephant in the room
A powerful intervention was made by Leslie Thomas QC on behalf of a number of survivors on Tuesday morning calling for a closer focus on the extent to which race discrimination played a role in the tragedy.
Mr Thomas’ statement can be read in full here. Noting that 85% of the Grenfell residents who died in the fire were not white, he called race the “elephant in the room” and drew links with the disproportionate deaths of BAME people from COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd in the US.
Certainly the inquiry itself has been a striking visual demonstration of what Mr Thomas was saying: so far all of the corporate witnesses have been white, as is the chair and most of the barristers. It was only when we heard from Grenfell residents in phase one that suddenly Black, Asian and Middle Eastern faces appeared.
This ties into what Mr Thomas was primarily asking for: a speedy appointment of a third panellist to assist Sir Martin Moore-Bick with his inquiries.
The history here is fraught. It was pressure from survivors’ groups which led Theresa May to reluctantly announce additional panel members for the second phase, rather than Sir Martin alone.
Nabeel Hamdi, a professor of social housing and urban development, was due to join this team before his sudden departure was announced just before Christmas, on the verge of phase two starting. We know little about why he left: a letter from Boris Johnson simply said he “was unable to proceed with the appointment”.
He was replaced by engineer Benita Mehra, but she also stepped down after links emerged between a company she was associated with and the charitable arm of Arconic, the manufacturer of the cladding panels which were fitted to the walls of Grenfell Tower.
So as it is, the chair next to Sir Martin is empty. Filling it is a challenge. It requires a suitable expert to give up what is likely to be around two years to the process. But there is mounting concern among the survivors that without an additional member, the inquiry has no hope of understanding and interrogating the role critical issues like race played in the tragedy.
Terry Ashton answers questions at the inquiry (picture: Grenfell Tower Inquiry)
‘No adverse effect in relation to external fire spread’
The heart of the questioning this week had been why Exova said so little about the fire risks inherent in cladding a high rise.
The firm produced three versions of its ‘outline fire strategy’ for the project, all of which dealt with requirements for ‘external fire spread’ in the following terms: “It is considered that the proposed changes will have no adverse effect on the building in relation to external fire spread but this will be confirmed by an analysis in a future issue of this report.”
The row over this looks set to be one of the determinate issues for this part of the inquiry. Exova says that it was only being asked to consider the conversion of the lower four floors from commercial to residential, and was essentially dropped from the project in spring 2014 without being asked to complete the report.
But the architects say the statement in the report was significant in giving them confidence that what they were proposing was safe.
We learned this week that Terry Ashton, the senior fire engineer who prepared the report, had been sent ‘Stage C’ plans by architects Studio E as early as October 2012. These included detailed cladding designs – including diagrams of the build up – and information about the proposed materials (at this stage zinc was preferred to the eventual aluminium composite material, but combustible insulation was in the plans).
He accepted that he knew the regulatory requirements for cladding systems, and the risks from using combustible materials.
Pressed repeatedly on why he did not say more to warn of these dangers, he explained that he focused on the conversion aspect of the refurbishment and was ultimately waiting for Studio E to ask him about the cladding. “I think that had we had a specific meeting to discuss those proposals [cladding], which were a fairly significant part of the design, then all of those things would have come out,” he said.
“But we never had a dialogue with them… In another project, for example, the architect or the project manager would contact us and would say, ‘We would now like to talk about how we’re going to deal with the external wall construction – or in this case the overcladding. Can we have a meeting?’ That never happened.”
The email chains
Beyond the fire strategy, the other key question marks over Mr Ashton’s role involve his ongoing relationship with the project after spring 2014.
At this point, Rydon was appointed lead contractor and took over the project. It no longer paid Exova to formally advise (in an email, Simon Lawrence, project manager for Rydon, said: “We haven’t employed them. So if you are getting some free advice then great, otherwise we will need to look at this”).
But like with many elements of the refurbishment project the actual situation was neither clear nor clearly understood by the key players involved.
The architects at Studio E continued to email Mr Ashton asking for advice. He continued to respond. In total, at least 40 emails were either sent or received by him in relation to the project following Rydon’s appointment in March 2014.
He agreed that this could have given the impression that he was still formally engaged and accepted that he never “disabused” Studio E of this notion.
Asked to explain why he continued to respond, he said that this was something Exova occasionally did to avoid appearing unhelpful to clients.
The problem is the quality of the advice Mr Ashton gave in these emails. At least two exchanges were very specifically about the cladding, albeit a narrow question about fire breaks, but they did detail the materials planned – including ACM. We detailed some of the key exchanges here.
This included a now-notorious statement that certain cavity barriers were unnecessary because the cladding would “fail” in a fire – although Mr Ashton was insistent that this meant fall off the building, not spread flames rapidly up and around it.
Mr Ashton was grilled in detail about his ongoing failure to warn about the cladding materials which were being proposed or to raise the fact that he had never completed an analysis of this critical aspect of the refurbishment in his fire strategy.
He explained this essentially by saying that he was responding in brief terms to specific detailed questions, and shouldn’t have been expected to read and digest the full plans given that his advice was informal.
Sir Martin intervened at this point to ask whether, once he had decided to respond, whether there was “any reason why you shouldn’t be expected to respond in a fully professional manner?”.
Mr Ashton conceded that there was not.
An outstanding question here is a phone call referred to by Studio E’s Neil Crawford, where he claimed Mr Ashton “fairly emphatically” told him the cladding materials were compliant. Mr Ashton flatly denied such an exchange had ever taken place, leaving the inquiry with the task of picking between the two testimonies. It was notable that none of the emails we saw contained this sort of language from Mr Ashton.
‘Have reviewed it and it is fine’
Before Mr Ashton took the stand on Tuesday, we heard from Dr Clare Barker (pictured), a fire engineer from Exova’s Warrington office, who reviewed the fire strategy Exova had produced for the existing tower block – to provide a “baseline” for its standard before the refurbishment.
In short, this strategy left much to be desired: it was based largely on assumptions, included some direct contradictions and omitted a number of key points which could be viewed as important.
Dr Barker’s review of it took the form of a seven-word email, written on her last day in the office, which said simply: “Have reviewed it and it is fine.”
This led to a series of questions about whether or not Exova was paying the requisite attention to the project.
‘Massage the proposals to something acceptable’
This feeds into a broader question about the role Exova was there to fulfil. Were its fire engineers engaged to help design a fire-safe refurbishment, or to simply help ensure the plans were signed off by building control?
It was noted that Mr Ashton did not have formal fire engineering training, but did have 25 years’ experience working in building control departments.
An early email sent by another consultant, Cate Cooney, referred to the plans as “making an existing crap condition worse” but said the firm could “massage the proposal to something acceptable”. This email asked if the firm had any contacts at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) who would ultimately be signing it off.
In response, one of Ms Cooney’s colleagues said: “Terry's the man for contacts down there.”
It emerged when Mr Ashton was questioned that he had previously worked with two RBKC inspectors (he said this wasn’t an advantage and that in fact having previously been their boss would result in them giving him “a hard time”).
Nonetheless, he did describe Exova’s role as follows under questioning: “That's generally what we worked for. To get building control approval to fire strategies for clients.”
He clarified that they would never accept proposals that were unsafe or non-compliant. But there are broad questions from Grenfell about the role of fire engineers in construction generally. Are they there for safety or sign-off?
‘I don’t think you can alter a stay put strategy just like that’
Aside from the cladding, an issue that came up frequently during cross-examination surrounded the building’s stay put strategy, and whether it should have been altered.
The witnesses were challenged about the smoke ventilation system, which was out of date and had failed to function in an earlier, more minor fire. The building also housed many people with mobility issues who would struggle to get out.
With this in mind, should evacuation strategies have been developed, or mitigations such as sprinklers recommended? There were many interesting exchanges on this, but this one in particular illustrates some of the pre-Grenfell resistance to amending stay put.
“Had you known that, had you known that the malfunctioning of that system had been sending smoke from lower floors to upper floors, would that have rendered the stay put strategy untenable and meant that mitigation ought to have been put in place in terms of evacuation?” asked Kate Grange QC to Mr Ashton.
He replied: “We couldn’t have – I don’t – well, in the first place, I didn’t know about it; in the second place, I don’t think you can alter a stay put strategy just like that because you need to do a number of things to make sure that that can function. For example, you would need to put in a fire alarm system to ensure that people would respond and make their escape.”
‘Sidelined to the status of YouTube watchers’
With 17 weeks lost to coronavirus added to the four weeks lost due to the application for protection against self-incrimination, the inquiry has much time to make up. It has only managed 18 days of hearings since it started in January and module one, which should have concluded at the end of March, remains in its early stages.
The proposed end date for evidence of May 2021 now looks like being pushed back to at least September. Once the time for Sir Martin to prepare his report is factored in, it is unlikely the process will conclude until well into 2022 or even 2023.
With this in mind, there is some anger among survivors that the process will break for a five-week summer recess in just three weeks. With the threat of a second coronavirus lockdown by no means eliminated, this seems particularly foolhardy.
There is also frustration about the way survivors are required to engage with the process. Restrictions on attendance mean they cannot attend the venue and are essentially watching the YouTube stream with the rest of us.
The question of attendance in person is undoubtedly a complex balancing of risk (many people involved, not least Sir Martin, are in at-risk categories for the disease).
Nonetheless, there must be a better means than YouTube. Mr Thomas noted in his submission that requests for a Zoom or Skype link have been turned down. “Sir, our clients’ perception is that the inquiry is deaf to their concerns and their lawyers have been silenced, or, at worst, sidelined to the status of YouTube watchers; that their voices have been locked out of the process, reduced to emailing questions or requests for interventions to a solicitors’ box.” A better way needs to be found.
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
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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.