The Building Research Establishment (BRE) viewed the production of ‘desktop studies’ covering the use of combustible Kingspan insulation on high rises as a “potentially huge source of income”, emails disclosed by the inquiry today reveal.
But Stephen Howard, currently director of fire testing and certification at the test house, today denied this had any influence on its decision to issue a crucial classification report for the firm in 2015.
The use of so-called desktop studies – where a consultant writes an assessment of how an untested cladding system would perform if tested – have become controversial since Grenfell as potentially having cleared inappropriate systems for use on high-rise buildings.
The inquiry heard last week that Kingspan used the report of a failed test to secure 29 desktop studies, including three produced by the BRE, with none of the consultants realising it had failed.
The inquiry saw an April 2015 email relating to the planned use of K15 on a building project, where architects were seeking a desktop study from Kingspan to clear the use of the combustible insulation on the building taller than 18m.
Kingspan cc-ed in a BRE consultant who they had commissioned to write the study.
“We need to come to a decision about how we proceed with this, as this will potentially be a huge source of income over the coming years but could also be a huge liability if not managed properly,” wrote consultant Tom Lennon.
“Agreed. I have both testing and assessments flying in from all directions at the moment. Plus each test we generate seems to spawn further openings,” replied Mr Howard.
Mr Howard had recently agreed to produce a classification report for Kingspan for a 2005 test, despite it being carried out a decade previously and used a cement particle board cladding sheet which did not represent real-world systems.
The firm had been using the test to justify the use of Kingspan K15 on hundreds of high rises despite never having it formally appraised as a pass or fail.
“Is the reality that Kingspan was potentially a significant source of revenue for the BRE in 2015?” asked Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry.
“Yes, I believe so,” replied Mr Howard.
“Is it fair to say that you didn’t want to upset Kingspan and the revenue it was bringing in by refusing to issue the classification report?” asked Mr Millett.
“No, upsetting Kingspan didn’t come into it,” Mr Howard replied. He explained that cladding testing was never the BRE’s largest source of income.
He said the classification report represented a “snapshot in time” of how the system had performed in a test in 2005 and that it was not up to the BRE to make judgements as to the real-world suitability of the system.
It has since emerged that Kingspan had changed the formulation of its insulation in 2006, which appears to have substantially reduced its fire performance. It withdrew both the test and classification report at the start of this phase of the inquiry.
Later, Mr Howard was also questioned about the impartiality of the advice he offered to Kingspan regarding its testing regime. The inquiry saw emails between Mr Howard and Kingspan’s Ivor Meredith in which Mr Howard said: “What I don’t have is an idea of all the variables that need to be covered… what your main commercial drivers are.”
Mr Millett questioned Mr Howard’s need to understand Kingspan’s “commercial drivers” and put it to him that this flew in the face of BRE’s impartiality code of conduct which was also shown. Mr Howard denied the suggestion, arguing that it was a “common question” to ask clients.
Other emails showed Mr Howard and Mr Meredith engaging over how the test rig could be set up to meet necessary requirements.
Mr Howard said: “All we are doing is imparting standard knowledge and all we are saying is you need to test in this configuration. We are not saying if you test in this configuration you will pass.”
Unlike his colleague Philip Clark, who appeared at the inquiry last week, Mr Howard could not recall specific training he received on maintaining impartiality, but said: “I think the general instruction was to not engage in conversations about competitor products, talking about or offering advice and opinions on what would pass.”
The inquiry also saw this morning that the BRE was sent a certificate produced by Local Authority Building Control (LABC) which said Kingspan’s insulation may be regarded as being of limited combustibility, with the implication that it could be used on high-rise buildings in untested combinations.
This was seriously inaccurate, as the combustible foam product could never have obtained this fire standard.
Sarah Colwell, technical development director at the BRE, emailed Mr Howard and his colleague Debbie Smith saying “we need to discuss this urgently” in May 2009.
But there is no record of any further actions or discussion regarding the certificate.
Mr Howard said this morning that he “could not recall” what happened, but said more might have been done if the BRE had been “specifically asked” to consider the document.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry continues.