Senior staff at the firm which manufactured the cladding panels used on Grenfell Tower admitted to being “in the know” about the risk in internal emails which also branded discussion of their fire performance “VERY CONFIDENTIAL!!!!!”, the inquiry heard today.
Shocking internal emails discussed by lawyers representing victims of the fire and Rydon, the main contractor on the tower’s refurbishment, appear to show that Arconic was aware of the perils of its Reynobond PE product long before the fire.
In one, sent in January 2016 by Claude Wehrle, head of technical sales support at Arconic, referred to a tower clad in Reynobond PE close to another building in Strasbourg which had been involved in a fire.
He said: “We were very lucky... The Walleck tower is in Reynobond PE 10 metres from a fire! [...] fortunately, the wind didn’t change direction, but... we really need to stop proposing PE in architecture! We are in the ‘know’, and I think it is up to us to be proactive... AT LAST.”
As early as July 2009 – eight years before the Grenfell Tower fire – Mr Wehrle messaged Claude Schmidt, president of Arconic Architectural Products, with photos of a blaze in Romania involving PE cladding.
“Here are some pictures to show you how dangerous ‘PE’ can be when it comes to architecture,” Mr Wehrle told his colleague.
In July 2015, while Reynobond PE was being installed on Grenfell Tower with Arconic’s knowledge, Mr Wehrle wrote in an internal email that the material “is DANGEROUS on facades, and everything should be transferred to FR [fire resistant] as a matter of urgency”.
He commented that this opinion “is technical and anti-commercial, it seems”, adding a smiley face, in an email previously disclosed by the inquiry.
Mr Wehrle had also told Guy Scheidecker, sales and marketing director at Arconic, that the cassette form of Reynobond PE – used on Grenfell and found to have made the fire even worse – did not achieve the Euroclass B standard that it was certified for.
“Having said that, this shorfall in relation to this standard is something that we have to keep as VERY CONFIDENTIAL!!!!!,” he added.
Mr Scheidecker responded: “This shouldn’t even have been mentioned.”
Last week the inquiry head how the products bent into their cassette form achieved a Class E rating in French fire tests in 2005, despite being marketed as Class B from 2008 onwards. A test carried out in France in 2011 found the cassettes were the even lower Class F.
In other internal emails, Mr Wehrle said tests conducted by Arconic to achieve Euroclass B certification for the riveted form of the product “are not really reflective of the riveted system in general” and mentioned to “arranging” the system to pass tests.
Asked about this by a colleague, he referred to “a gap in the certification that we continue to make use of”.
A report produced in 2011 by Mr Wehrle on aluminium composite material cladding noted: “For the moment, even if we know that PE material in cassette has a bad behaviour exposed to fire, we can still work with national regulations who are not as restrictive.”
Marcus Taverner QC, acting for Rydon, told the inquiry that both Arconic and Celotex, which manufactured the insulation used in the cladding system on Grenfell Tower, aimed “to have their products used in the circumstances in which they were in fact used at Grenfell, in the knowledge that the understanding of construction professionals was such that it was likely that they would be duped”.
He added: “They were both expressly aware of the potential consequences and as occurred at Grenfell Tower.”
Earlier in the day, Sam Stein QC, representing a group of the bereaved, survivors and residents, branded the manufacturers “little more than crooks and killers”.
Adrian Williamson QC, also speaking on behalf of those directly affected by the fire, said the product manufacturers “were the principal wrongdoers, but they operated in very murky world” – claiming that testing and certification bodies “knew they were being played”.
He called on the inquiry “to undertake an unsparing investigation into the toxic and incestuous culture and practices of this industry”.
The whole testing regime, both argued, represented “a route to market rather than a route to safety”.
Mr Stein also urged the inquiry panel to share its opinions on problems within the construction products industry and on legislative changes brought forward since the fire earlier than the phase two report, which will likely not appear until 2023.
He warned of a “real danger” that the victims “will be let down by this inquiry if it doesn’t participate in the process of change”.
Later in the day, Samantha Leek QC, representing the Building Research Establishment (BRE), said the body “wishes to express its concern and dismay about the disclosures from both Celotex and Kingspan in respect of misleading information provided to BRE about components and cladding systems tested on their behalf”.
The inquiry has previously heard that systems tested at the BRE by the two insulation companies, whose products were used at Grenfell, did not represent the relevant products on the market.
Ms Leek argued that the BRE had “no involvement in the testing or classification of the cladding systems installed on Grenfell Tower before the tragic fire”.
Representing Siderise Insulation, which supplied cavity barriers for the refurbishment, Oliver Campbell QC defended his client from criticisms of its testing and marketing strategies and pointed out that the firm’s Chris Mort had warned Harley Facades about a potential “weak link for fire” in its designs, which was ignored.
Giving its opening statement last week, Arconic said the product had been “misused” in a way that was “entirely peculiar to Grenfell” and “could not have been predicted”. It said the design involved “numerous departures from building regulations” and that the product was “capable of being used safely if adequate safety measures are designed”.
Three witnesses based in France – including Mr Wehrle – are currently refusing to attend the UK to give evidence to the inquiry due to a French law which prohibits disclosures to foreign courts. Survivors have called on the Foreign Office to work with the French government to achieve a resolution.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry continues.
Each week our sister publication Inside Housing sends out a newsletter rounding up the key news from the Grenfell Inquiry, along with exclusive analysis of what it all means for the social housing sector.
Already have an account? Click here to manage your newsletters