With the Grenfell Tower Inquiry set to resume on Monday after a lengthy break, Peter Apps runs through the key things to look out for
After pausing on 9 December due to a positive coronavirus test among a member of the team, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry resumes on Monday. This time, witnesses will give evidence over Zoom – a decision that has angered some survivors and bereaved.
Inside Housing looks at some of the key issues that will be at stake.
The first week will see one remaining witness from giant insulation company Kingspan take to the stands. Andrew Pack is the firm’s global technical support manager, based in the UAE, responsible for offering technical advice to its insulation team. He has worked for Kingspan for 29 years, according to his Linkedin profile.
We will then begin to hear the evidence from Arconic witnesses, the American firm whose French subsidiary sold the deadly aluminium composite material (ACM) panels for use on Grenfell Tower. The first phase of the inquiry identified the panels as the “primary cause” of the rapid fire spread on the tower.
The first Arconic witness will be a crucial one: Deborah French, the former UK sales manager for the firm, whose name has popped up several times at the inquiry already.
According to witnesses, Ms French was invited to meetings with the architects at Studio E at an early stage in the planning of the refurbishment, where she discussed the potential to use Arconic’s Reynobond ACM as the cladding material on Grenfell Tower. At that stage, the plan was to use a non-combustible form of zinc cladding, which was later switched for ACM to save money.
When this switch was made, Ms French sent an email to a witness at cladding sub-contractor Harley Curtain Wall, who had talked up the benefits of using ACM, thanking him for his “hard work and perseverance in putting Reynobond forward” and promised “lunch or dinner at some point”.
Other emails also appear to show Ms French offering reassurance about the fire safety of Arconic’s ACM although not in relation to the Grenfell Tower project. In 2013, following reports of ACM fires in the Middle East, she wrote to senior staff at CEP Architectural Facades – a middleman company which cut Arconic’s panels to shape and sold them on to the end user – reassuring them that the company would “offer the right specification” in relation to fire safety.
“As you know, we supply both [polyethylene] and [fire-rated] core and can control and understand what core is being used in all projects due to the controlled supply route we have,” she said.
“By only supplying Reynobond to a very small group of approved fabricators and working very closely with them on all projects, we are able to follow what type of project is being designed/developed and then offer the right Reynobond specification including the core.”
Despite this, the more combustible polyethylene-cored ACM was sold for use on Grenfell Tower.
Following Ms French and one of her colleagues, Vince Meakins, the inquiry will spend a week hearing the evidence from Claude Schmidt, the president of Arconic Architectural Products, the French-arm of the company that produced the product.
Mr Schmidt’s attendance was initially in doubt as he was among the witnesses who indicated they would refuse to attend on the basis of an obscure French law which prohibits disclosure to foreign courts.
But following an outcry from survivors and bereaved, he will now give evidence through a translator over the course of an entire week commencing 15 February.
With two of his colleagues refusing to attend the inquiry, Mr Schmidt’s cross-examination will be crucial in building up a picture of the actions of the French arm of the business, which has so far been communicated in piecemeal form with the disclosure of a number of shocking emails in opening statements made by survivors’ lawyers.
The emails appear to show that the organisation was aware that its product posed a severe fire risk, particularly when cut into the cassette form which was used on Grenfell Tower. These panels obtained a basement fire rating of Class E in testing in the mid-2000s, a fact that was apparently hidden from the market and certifiers.
This sparked some consternation within Arconic. Claude Wehrle, a member of the technical team, for instance, emailed Mr Schmidt on 17 July 2009 with pictures of an ACM fire in Bucharest and wrote: “Here are some pictures to show you how dangerous ‘PE’ can be when it comes to architecture.”
In 2012, Mr Wehrle pushed Mr Schmidt to attend a meeting to discuss the fire rating of ACM PE. “We have to take a decision for the class we are going to give the market for this product,” he wrote on May 29. It is not yet clear what was said at this meeting.
These warnings continued. In an internal report on 29 June 2015, for example, Mr Wehrle wrote: “My Opinion: PE is DANGEROUS on facades, and everything should be transferred to FR as a matter of urgency. The [French standard perceived as permitting its use] should have been discontinued over 10 years ago! This opinion is technical and anti-commercial, it seems.” He then added a smiley face.
With Mr Wehrle one of those refusing to give evidence, interrogation of this issue will have to be done by Mr Schmidt.
Following Mr Schmidt, the inquiry will call witnesses from the Building Research Establishment (BRE). The BRE has occupied a central role in British building science for generations – dating back to its inception as a national research facility in the aftermath of World War I. It was privatised in 1997.
Its involvement with Grenfell is the testing of systems containing Kingspan and Celotex insulation, which paved the way for both to advertise their products as suitable for use on high-rise buildings.
Among three witnesses from the BRE, particular attention will be paid the evidence of Phil Clark. He was the supervisor who was present for a now infamous Celotex test, which the firm is accused of having rigged with, among other things, the inclusion of fire resisting boards near temperature monitors.
Mr Clark’s independent report of the test did not mention these barriers and one Celotex witness, Jamie Hayes, said he was aware they had been used.
Mr Hayes’ evidence was in fact that Mr Clark had offered advice to Celotex on technical changes to give a better chance of passing the test, after it had failed on a first attempt.
After the BRE, there will be a single witness from Herefordshire Building Control. This arm of the local authority produced certificates for both Kingspan and Celotex which suggested their insulation could be used on high rises.
Discussing how they obtained this certificate, one Kingspan witness wrote in an internal email: “We can be very convincing when we need to be, we threw every bit of fire test data we could at him, we probably blocked his server.
“In the end I think LABC convinced themselves [K15] is the best thing since sliced bread. We didn’t even have to get any real ale down him!”
Witnesses from Siderise, the firm which made the cavity barriers used in the cladding system, will follow before six witnesses from the British Board of Agrément (BBA). Like the BRE, the BBA holds an important status within the construction sector and holds a reputation as an authoritative certifier of construction products.
The BBA provided certificates for the insulation products as well as the Reynobond cladding panels which were used on the tower. The inquiry has already heard that the certificate for the cladding panels was provided to the refurbishment team by Arconic and circulated among them.
Finally, two Kingspan witnesses will return to complete their evidence – Adrian Pargeter and Richard Burnley. Mr Burnley’s evidence was disrupted by the early break due to the positive coronavirus test, while Mr Pargeter is returning due to “correct” evidence he gave relating to the presentation of a test on a cladding system to a parliamentary select committee in 2018, after the fire at Grenfell Tower.
He had been accused of “a deliberate attempt to deceive” the committee by failing to mention that the test – comprising non-combustible cladding and insulation – was set up to fail. He denied this.
Inside Housing has seen correspondence from Kingspan showing they believe this question was put in error and that the evidence submitted to the select committee related to a different test.
The second module will then conclude and opening statements will be made for the third module, which will primarily examine the actions of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, currently scheduled to start on 29 March.
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. Peter 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
Week 23: ‘That would have come as an earthquake to you at the time, would it not?’
This week the inquiry took its deepest dive yet into the inner workings of the cladding manufacturer whose product has been blamed for the terrible spread of fire up Grenfell Tower. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week 24: ‘Do you accept that Test 5B was Arconic's deadly secret’
The president of the firm that made and sold the cladding panels installed on Grenfell Tower was asked to account for the apparent concealment of “disastrous” fire tests on the product this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 25: ‘This is quite an incredible list of omissions and missed instances, isn’t it?’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard its first witnesses from the Building Research Establishment (BRE) - the testing house which carried out key fire tests on the Kingspan and Celotex insulation products which were later used on Grenfell Tower. Peter Apps reports.
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