The manufacturer of the cladding used on Grenfell would not offer a less combustible version of the product unless it was “forced to due to changes in the fire regulations” as doing so would make it “too expensive”, an email disclosed by the inquiry today claimed.
The email from Richard Geater, of rival manufacturer 3A, claimed he was being undercut by Arconic (then known as Alcoa) because the product he was selling had an FR – ‘fire rated’ – core.
“Alcoa can offer this but they will charge considerably more,” he wrote. “Alcoa won’t change their core until they are forced to due to changes in the fire regulations, else Reynobond [the firm’s cladding product] will become more expensive.”
The aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding sold for Grenfell Tower had a core of polythene – which is highly combustible and was the “primary cause” of the flames that ripped up the tower.
It was also revealed today that ‘FR’ rated panels were used for a mock-up of the cladding, despite the much more combustible ‘PE’ cladding being used for the main job.
The inquiry has previously seen emails from Arconic that show senior members of the firm’s European operation were aware of fire tests that showed the poor performance of its polythene-cored cladding, particularly when cut into ‘cassette’ shapes.
In one email, sent on 6 July 2011, technical manager Claude Wehrle wrote: “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.”
He added in a 2015 email that “PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to FR as a matter of urgency” but concluded this view was “technical and anti-commercial”.
In England, at the time of the Grenfell refurbishment, ACM cladding panels with a PE core were required to meet the standard of Class 0 – a rating widely understood to have been too low and which the government had been warned to toughen.
Arconic had a certificate saying its Reynobond panels achieved a Class 0 rating, although the small print confirmed this related only to the FR version of the panel.
The email revelation came as Geof Blades (pictured above) was questioned about his role in the refurbishment – Blades was the sales director at CEP Architectural Facades, the firm which cut the panels to size for Grenfell Tower and sold them on.
He had previously said he was unaware an ‘FR’ version of the panel existed, but accepted after being shown this email that he was.
A further email showed that following a fire in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in May 2013, Arconic’s UK sales manager Debbie French emailed CEP to explain the firm supplied “both PE and FR core”. She said it “can control and understand what core is being used in all projects” and “offer the right Reynobond specification including the core”.
“Why didn’t you, having got this email, say [to the Grenfell design team] there’s been a fire in the UAE, we are talking about ACM for Grenfell, we have got to be careful that we get the right core for this building?” asked counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC.
“You put forward Reynobond when you weren’t asked for it, that’s right, isn’t it?” asked Mr Millett
“I can’t answer that,” he replied.
“Do you think you should have?” asked Mr Millett.
“With hindsight, yes,” Mr Blades replied.
The inquiry heard that Mr Blades had first been contacted by the architects in spring 2012, during the very early stages of the refurbishment of the tower, to discuss “an appropriate cladding system”.
He then met with the architects, bringing Ms French from Arconic along in October 2012.
He was asked to provide quotes for the work in January 2013, under a specification listing ‘VM Zinc’ as the cladding product.
But instead, he based his quotes on a Reynobond PE product painted to give it the appearance of zinc.
“You put forward Reynobond when you weren’t asked for it, that’s right, isn’t it?” asked Mr Millett.
“Yes, at this point,” replied Mr Blades, explaining that he felt he was offering an option that would be “suitable” for the job.
He accepted that he had “introduced” the cladding product to the job but denied he had “recommended” it. He said he believed it was acceptable for high-rises due to its ‘Class 0’ rating, but had not made any particular checks.
When asked why he had not approached firms other than Arconic that produced ACM, he described it as “courtesy”, since the two companies had already been speaking about the job.
“From the documents we’ve seen so far, you were aware by this stage that Reynobond 55 came in an ‘FR’ [which] was suitable for Grenfell. And I’ve got to put it to you that this was something of a missed opportunity?" said Mr Millett
Later, it emerged that when a mock-up was installed on the tower in summer 2014 ahead of the full works, Arconic delivered and installed FR-rated panels. Mr Blades said he thought this was simply because they were “quicker to dispatch”.
Despite this, the standard PE version was still used for the full cladding job. “Did you think to explore with them [Arconic] that since Grenfell Tower was a building in excess of 18m you should actually be suggesting FR core to the client?” asked Mr Millett.
“I didn’t and I don’t believe CEP did. At this stage in the project, we were just working to other people’s requirements,” said Mr Blades.
“From the documents we’ve seen so far, you were aware by this stage that Reynobond 55 came in an ‘FR’ [which] was suitable for Grenfell. And I’ve got to put it to you that this was something of a missed opportunity?" said Mr Millett.
“With hindsight, yes,” said Mr Blades.
Mr Blades was also shown emails – already disclosed by the inquiry – where, following the selection of the Reynobond cladding panels for a mock-up on the tower, Ms French wrote: “Thank you for your hard work and perseverance in putting Reynobond forward. I think I owe you [Mark Harris of Harley Facades] and Geof [Mr Blades] lunch or dinner at some point.”
“All I can say to this is the three companies acted very professionally and I was never taken out for lunch by anybody,” he said. He accepted that she was “grateful” for introducing the firm to the job.
Earlier, he had been asked if his relationship with Ms French was “informal and friendly”, with emails showing him referring to her as “Debbs” and writing “I will always believe YOU”. He said it was “a professional, business relationship”.
“Asked at the end of the day if he would have done anything differently during the project, he answered that he would have ‘looked more deeply into the documents that were made available’, particularly the certification for the cladding panels”
Asked whether Arconic had ever made him aware of the testing showing the panels achieved extremely low fire ratings in ‘cassette’ form, Mr Blades said: “Not to my knowledge.”
He said if he had known, “somebody at CEP would have addressed the situation with Arconic to overcome that problem”.
Earlier, he claimed that before the fire he was “not consciously aware” that the polythene in the core of the panel was plastic and did not know it was combustible.
Asked at the end of the day if he would have done anything differently during the project, he answered that he would have “looked more deeply into the documents that were made available”, particularly the certification for the cladding panels.
Shown this document, he said he had been unaware that the test pass for Class 0 to which it referred related only to the ‘FR’ version of the panels.
The inquiry continues.
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
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