Kingspan relied on fire tests run on a new trial product to continue selling its combustible insulation product for high rises after being challenged over its use in 2013, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard today.
Over the past two weeks, the inquiry has heard evidence that the giant insulation firm advertised its K15 insulation product as suitable for use on high rises based on a 2005 fire test, despite switching the product for one with an inferior fire performance from 2006 onwards.
Today Dr Malcolm Rochefort, former technical director at Kingspan, was grilled over a new series of tests commissioned in 2014, after a fire consultancy threatened to blow the whistle to the industry that the product should not be used on high rises.
These resulted in a number of failures, followed by a pass in July 2014. However, Kingspan documents show this was with a new “trial product” which used different chemicals believed to have a superior fire performance.
But further internal emails show the technical teams would respond to queries with “bespoke letters”, saying the product could be used on specific high-rise projects – turning letters around in 48 hours.
“Would you accept this was a deliberate and planned reliance by Kingspan on a test of a trial product to support the use of a completely different product?” asked Kate Grange QC, counsel to the inquiry.
“I assumed, maybe wrongly, that a new product would be produced based on this blowing agent configuration.” responded Dr Rochefort.
He said he was also reliant on certification from the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) group approving this product for use on high rises – but by this stage this certificate had expired.
“Are you prepared to accept that during the whole of your time as technical director of the company, Kingspan had no test evidence which related to the K15 product actually being sold to market that could support the use of that product above 18m in height,” Ms Grange asked.
“I’m not prepared to accept that it was done knowingly... and the certification [by LABC and others] I took in good faith,” he said.
Standard K15 would eventually pass as part of a system with terracotta cladding in April 2015, but Dr Rochefort retired in 2014.
The new testing on K15 in 2014 was the first the company had commissioned since it received the certificate from LABC in 2009. Internal emails show it elected to stop testing at this point as it believed the certificate would be enough to persuade contractors its product was sufficient.
Testing was resumed after a fire engineering consultancy raised concerns that the test Kingspan had commissioned was not enough to justify its widespread use on high rises, particularly on buildings with steel frames.
They sought a meeting with the firm and wrote to them in October 2013 saying they would advise clients against using its insulation on high rises above 18m and “make public our concerns to the industry at large” if further test evidence was not produced.
The email read: “This stance may not always be appreciated by our clients, nevertheless, we do take fire safety very seriously and of course have a duty of care to public safety.
“I trust… that Kingspan will behave in a responsible manner to properly resolve the doubt over the use of K15 and not be distracted by inconsistencies [in building guidance].”
The inquiry heard yesterday that Phillip Heath, one of Dr Rochefort’s colleagues, had responded to earlier concerns from Wintech by writing internally that the firm could “go fuck themselves” or Kingspan would “sue the arse of them [sic]”.
The firm was coming under similar pressure at the same time from the National House Building Council (NHBC), the country’s largest building control inspector. Ultimately this resulted in Kingspan threatening the NHBC with an injunction and a legal action for libel if it made these concerns public.
The inquiry then heard that Kingspan commissioned a series of tests with the BRE. When an early attempt narrowly failed, it challenged the result – arguing that it would have passed on an earlier draft of the pass/fail criteria, and copying its lawyer into emails with the BRE.
Despite this dispute, Dr Rochefort drafted an email to Wintech which said this failed test “met the criteria for approval [in official building guidance]”.
“Why didn’t you say to Wintech, ‘it was close, the BRE didn’t think it was a pass, but we are challenging that’?” asked Ms Grange.
“I could have said that… I was [just] running this past people, I don’t know if that email was ever sent,” he replied. No record of it being sent was shown.
Towards the end of his evidence it emerged that his work diary had only been disclosed to the inquiry on 17 November, among a large amount of late disclosure by Kingspan.
It has not yet been viewed by other legal teams, and he was told he may be recalled to answer questions about it if any emerge.
The inquiry continues.
Each week we send out a newsletter rounding up the key news from the Grenfell Inquiry, along with the headlines from the week
Already have an account? Click here to manage your newsletters