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
Week 15: ‘Have you ever informed the police that you destroyed documents relevant to their investigation?’
Witnesses from the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) gave evidence for a second week, which began with a shocking revelation about withheld and destroyed evidence. Peter Apps recaps
Week 16: ‘I conclude this was very serious evidence of professional negligence’
This week saw members of Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation finish giving evidence, before the inquiry’s expert witnesses took the stand to make some highly critical assessments of the work they had seen before and during the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Jack Simpson recaps
Grenfell Tower: a timeline of the refurbishment
Following the conclusion of module one of the Grenfell Inquiry’s second phase, Peter Apps presents a timeline of the key moments during the fatal refurbishment of the west London tower block
Week 17: ‘It’s hard to make a note about this because we are not clean’
The start of the second module of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase two came with some huge revelations about the companies that sold the products used in the cladding system. Peter Apps reports
Week 18: ‘It was just reckless optimism wasn't it?’
As the inquiry began cross-examining witnesses for the second module of its phase two work, the picture surrounding just how Grenfell Tower ended up wrapped in such dangerous materials became a little clearer. Nathaniel Barker was keeping an eye on proceedings
Week 19: ‘And that was intentional, deliberate, dishonest?’
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry this week heard the shocking story of how the insulation manufacturer “manipulated” official testing and marketed its product “dishonestly”. Peter Apps tells the story
Week 20: ‘We were outed by a consultant who we then had to fabricate a story to’
This week the inquiry investigated the actions of Kingspan – the manufacturer of one of the insulation products used in the tower’s cladding system. Dominic Brady reports
Week 21: ‘It’s there in black and white isn't it? We see a complete absence of any consideration of life safety’
The story of insulation giant Kingspan’s testing and marketing of its combustible insulation for high rises was unpacked in minute detail this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 22: ‘All we do is lie in here’
In the third week of evidence from insulation giant Kingspan, the inquiry continued to uncover shocking details about the firm’s behaviour both before and after the Grenfell Tower fire. Lucie Heath reports
Week 23: ‘That would have come as an earthquake to you at the time, would it not?’
This week the inquiry took its deepest dive yet into the inner workings of the cladding manufacturer whose product has been blamed for the terrible spread of fire up Grenfell Tower. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week 24: ‘Do you accept that Test 5B was Arconic's deadly secret’
The president of the firm that made and sold the cladding panels installed on Grenfell Tower was asked to account for the apparent concealment of “disastrous” fire tests on the product this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 25: ‘This is quite an incredible list of omissions and missed instances, isn’t it?’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard its first witnesses from the Building Research Establishment (BRE) - the testing house which carried out key fire tests on the Kingspan and Celotex insulation products which were later used on Grenfell Tower. Peter Apps reports.
Each week we send 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