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Grenfell Tower Inquiry diary 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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Two key witnesses from contractor Rydon gave evidence this week. Peter Apps recaps some of the key points from a revealing week of evidence #ukhousing

Grenfell Tower Inquiry diary week seven: “I do not think I have ever worked with a contractor operating with this level of nonchalance” #ukhousing

This week the inquiry heard witnesses from Rydon, the contractor which took on the design and build responsibility for the Grenfell Tower project from April 2014 onwards. Simon Lawrence, contracts manager, and Simon O’Connor, the project manager who ran the onsite operation, gave evidence this week.

Pocket the difference

A big focus of this module of the inquiry has been value engineering: the process of substituting materials for cheaper versions, which, in the case of Grenfell Tower, drove the move to the deadly aluminium composite material (ACM). We learned a good deal about this process this week.

Rydon had bid alongside two other contractors for the work when it went out to tender in autumn 2013. On 11 March 2014 – before the process finished – the firm got an unofficial tip off from Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) that they were “in first place”.

But KCTMO was clear that further cost saving was necessary to bring the project within budget. In an email on 13 March it noted that “our target [for savings] is circa £800k”.

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But Rydon itself was in difficulty. Its finance team discovered one member of staff, Frank Smith, had made an error preparing the bid (described in internal emails as a “Frank-ism”) that meant they had budgeted £212,000 too low.

As counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC put it: “You are underwater. You have got to find over £1m of value engineering in order both to satisfy your client and to maintain your profit level.”

Rydon then secured a quote from subcontractor Harley Facades as to what saving could be made by switching the cladding to ACM from the more expensive zinc option as originally planned, which quoted either £419,627 or £576,973 depending on the type of fixing used. But when Rydon presented this to KCTMO, it said the savings would be £293,368 or £376,175. Mr Millett asked Mr Lawrence to account for the difference.

“I would suggest by that, although not my area of expertise, that Rydon took some of the saving for themselves,” he replied.

“Did you know that at the time?” asked Mr Millett.

“I think I probably did, yes,” replied Mr Lawrence, noting openly that the money “probably went into, effectively, additional profit”.

“Was the plan in Rydon to keep the TMO in the dark about the real extent of the savings on the ACM panels and then pocket the difference to make up the shortfall caused by Frank Smith’s £212,000 estimating error?” asked Mr Millett. “That could be the reason for it,” said Mr Lawrence.

‘Essex boy patter’

Once the decision had been made to switch out the zinc for ACM to save this money, the next job was to persuade the planning committee at Kensington and Chelsea Council to give permission for this change.

This committee was preoccupied with aesthetics and favoured the zinc above the look of the ACM, which they had snootily described as looking too much like something from (south London borough) “Croyden [sic]”.

In an email on 6 May, ahead of a key meeting with the planners, Mr Lawrence said the purpose was to “propose the material change from zinc to ACM… so KCTMO can maximise their [value engineering] target”. He talked about a plan to “put forward our case that ACM is not an inferior product to zinc”.

Under cross-examination he said that fire safety was not part of this consideration, it was just aesthetics and durability. He described zinc as “a fairly luxurious material”.

However, another email did emphasise that the ACM had a ‘Class 0’ rating – although he said this was just to “give... as much information as I had”. Mr Lawrence admitted he had received a certificate relating to the fire performance of the ACM, but said he had not read it “cover to cover” and relied on the specialists to understand it.

While the planners did accept the switch to ACM, they did not accept a further change – using cheaper face-fixed panels which are essentially riveted into position as opposed to the more expensive ‘cassettes’ which are cut in a way which allows them to be hung from rails and hidden from view.

Mr Lawrence did his best to persuade the planners to accept this change: “I’m giving it my hardest sales pitch as we speak. Come on the Essex boy patter!,” he wrote in an email.

But the aesthetic concerns won out and the planners insisted on hidden fixings. This was a fateful decision: we know now that the cassette panels have a far worse fire performance than the cheaper riveted versions.

Mr Lawrence gives evidence to the inquiry
Mr Lawrence gives evidence to the inquiry

Rebel residents

Another headline topic this week has been the way complaints by residents were dealt with by Rydon and KCTMO.

Mr Lawrence (and later Mr O’Connor) were shown a series of emails referring to complaints and concerns, which made it clear that there was a view among the team that some residents of the tower were essentially difficult and annoying regular complainers.

We saw that a question Rydon was asked in the tender interview is how it would cope if residents “encouraged negative press involvement”.

Mr Lawrence said he had been briefed in advance by KCTMO that “there were several vocal residents, one of which could be extremely vocal and was quite well known by the TMO”.

Pressed, he confirmed this was a reference to Eddie Daffarn, one of the authors of the Grenfell Action Group blog, which tried to raise fire safety concerns before the blaze.

In one email Mr Lawrence noted being “under massive pressure and criticism from the rebel residents about our quality of work”.

In one specific email, Mr Daffarn wrote: “It should be residents that have a say in the type of windows and cladding we receive, not the sole decision of a town hall planning department.”

In another, Mr Lawrence was shown complaints about a damaged self-closer on a fire door in Flat 136 – an issue which had not been fixed by the night of the fire.

A further email from Mr Lawrence and KCTMO noted: “I’ve not mentioned the need to fix through asbestos ceiling for the pipe work boxing if the HIU [heat interface unit] is in the kitchen cupboard. I assume you don’t need to be questioned on this by Mr Daffarn.”

Reference was also made to Rydon workers being “very aggressive and threatening”, no water being provided when water was turned off and lifts being put out of service.

Mr Lawrence made no apology, insisting that “we were always courteous with the residents”.

He then made several references to the residents being aggressive. “I think there were several very vocal, dare I say aggressive residents that, in my opinion, regardless of what work was being carried out or not, they still would have had reason for complaint,” he said.

lacknall moment

The aftermath of the Lakanal House fire (picture: Press Association)

A ‘Lacknall’ moment

Mr Lawrence was also grilled about a crucial moment in November 2014, when KCTMO queried the fire safety of the planned cladding works with him. This was after the plans had been finalised but before the cladding was fitted – so a time when a change could have been made.

Having been struck by a memory of the Lakanal House blaze in south London in 2009 (which killed six after spreading via combustible window panels), Claire Williams, project manager at KCTMO, emailed her consultant Artelia on 12 November to say: “I have just been looking at the cladding as our database is asking for costs...

“However, I do not know if there is any issue of flame retardance requirement? I know at Lacknall [sic] House one issue was that the replacement panelling for the asbestos cladding was not flame retardant! I don’t know if this is in the specification, but want to make sure it is raised. Please advise.”

She was told to email Mr Lawrence and sent him a note that said: ”Simon, I am just writing to get clarification on the fire retardance of the new cladding – I just had a ‘Lacknall’ moment.”

Mr Lawrence did not respond. Under cross-examination he said that she was simply referring to a small amount of glass reinforced cladding on the lowest floors of the tower, because this was the element she included in her email (copy and pasted from the design specification).

Mr Millett reacted to this answer sceptically. After grilling him for some time on this interpretation, he said: “This document, I know, is a well-known document in the disclosure. Did you have any assistance in preparing to give evidence to the inquiry today and in the last few days about what sort of answers you should give in relation to this document?”

“No,” Mr Lawrence answered.

step 2 diary

The panel listen to Mr O'Connor's evidence (picture: Grenfell Tower Inquiry)

‘I did not have the technical expertise and ability to check the designs’

From 2014 onwards, Rydon was the design and build contractor in charge of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and contractually responsible for ensuring the works complied with building regulations.

This raises difficult questions for the firm about what it was doing to fulfil this obligation, a subject Mr Millett returned to again and again during the week.

Mr Lawrence repeatedly made Rydon’s general position clear: it believed that by appointing subcontractors and securing building control sign off, it had done enough to discharge this duty.

For example, when asked about the missing cavity barriers at the top of the system (a requirement of building regulations), he said: “I would have expected Harley to do it right in the first place, I would expect them to pass it to Studio E for comment, I would then expect it to go to building control... I did not have the technical expertise and ability to check the designs.”

Asked about many key emails or product sheets, he said he had either not read them or only read them in a “high level” or “cursory” way, assuming others in the chain would be checking them.

This led to a key decision from Rydon early in its time on the project – the decision to dump key fire consultant Exova from the team.

Despite telling a meeting in April 2014 that he would “contact [fire engineer Exova] with the view of using them going forward” and repeating this assurance through to October, Mr Lawrence told the architects that he did not feel fire consultants were necessary as building control inspectors would ensure the designs complied with regulations.

This meant that Exova’s fire safety report – which had yet to formally consider the cladding – was never completed.

All of this posed a specific question: how could Rydon comply with its contractual obligations to check the design without the necessary expertise? As well as a general one: how can a design and build contractor do its job without a design team?

As Mr Millett put it: “If you didn’t have a design team in house or an in-house expertise for design, how could Rydon operate a design and build business?”

“Because they relied on third parties to do that,” replied Mr Lawrence. “Which in my experience is standard throughout the industry.”

step 3 diary 7

An image of a poorly fitted cavity barrier (picture: Dr Barbara Lane)

‘I do not think I have ever worked with a contractor operating with this level of nonchalance’

When project manager Mr O’Connor took to the stand on Thursday, he was asked detailed questions about Rydon’s onsite management of the works.

Again, much was left to subcontractors, with Rydon only checking the finished details against drawings after installation – right down to the fact that he was not even checking what materials were coming onto site and being installed to ensure they matched the design.

Mr O’Connor referred repeatedly to being “under pressure” with the project slipping some 12 weeks behind schedule.

Discussing his departure from Rydon in summer 2015, he said: “It was starting to fall behind programme and, you know, when that happens, pressure happens... Extremely long days, you know, just a lot of pressure… it was affecting my home life.”

These difficulties led to frustrations from KCTMO’s consultants Artelia, which wrote in May 2016: “This is becoming a farce. Despite all our efforts to ensure a smooth landing, I have to say I do not think I have ever worked with a contractor operating with this level of nonchalance.”

With regard to the quality of the work, two particular issues were raised. First the fitting cavity barriers for the cladding system – designed to prevent fire ripping through it – which were described as “shockingly poor workmanship” by Mr Millett.

Mr O’Connor was unable to explain how this had slipped through the quality control systems in place.

Second was windows. The refurbishment saw new windows fitted in all flats in the tower. These have been identified as a crucial piece in the disaster, in explaining how the fire broke out of the flat of origin and back in to those higher up the building.

One issue was the decision to pack the gap between the old and new windows with highly combustible insulation instead of non-combustible mineral wool, as specified.

Rydon subcontracted this work to SD Plastering, but not the design elements, meaning it retained responsibility for the design. So why did it not meet the specification?

“We should have checked it,” Mr Lawrence said. “But I would have expected those managing the works on site to have a closer grip on the… specification than someone like myself, but I do agree we should have checked it.”

But when Mr O’Connor was asked if he appreciated that filling the gap with Celotex was a risk, he replied: “I didn’t see it particularly as an issue, as the whole building was being covered in [Celotex] and someone far more intelligent than me had designed it.”

“I don’t think we were cognisant that there were regulations relating to the window linings internally,” Mr Lawrence added. “We thought it was an aesthetic finish product.”

Undoubtedly, this does point to a bigger issue in the industry: there are thousands of tower blocks with combustible insulation around windows.

What’s next?

Next week we will hear from further Rydon witnesses, including those who took over after Mr Lawrence and Mr O’Connor left the project.

Grenfell Tower Inquiry: week seven news stories

Rydon planned to ‘pocket’ savings from Grenfell Tower cladding switch, inquiry hears

Rydon sought to “pocket” more than £100,000 of the savings made by switching to the deadly aluminium composite material cladding on Grenfell Tower by hiding the true costs from its client.

Rydon contract manager used ‘Essex boy patter’ to push cheaper cladding option for Grenfell

Rydon’s contract manager used “Essex boy patter” to push the use of cheaper cladding options for Grenfell Tower.

Rydon manager brands Grenfell residents who complained about fire safety ‘aggressive’

The contracts manager for Rydon during the Grenfell Tower refurbishment described residents who raised complaints about fire safety and cladding as “vocal and aggressive”.

‘Shockingly poor workmanship’ went ‘unchecked’ in Grenfell cladding system, inquiry hears

Rydon’s project manager for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment was unable to explain the presence of “shockingly poor workmanship” on cavity barriers in the cladding system installed on the building.

Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase two: weekly diaries

Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase two: weekly diaries

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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

Click here to read the full story

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