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
Module two of the second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry began yesterday. This is the stage of the inquiry’s work that many view as the most important: an examination of the actions over many years of the companies that sold the highly combustible materials on the walls of the tower.
In particular, it will investigate how these products were tested and marketed and the regulatory regime that surrounds them. As a result, we will be meeting a new cast of characters over the next four months. And yesterday, in a series of explosive opening statements, we heard the skeleton of the story that will be told about them.
The picture painted in the opening statement by Stephanie Barwise QC, who appeared for one group of survivors and bereaved families, was of the “sinister” actions of three companies – insulation manufacturers Kingspan and Celotex and cladding manufacturer Arconic.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Giant Ireland-based insulation company Kingspan has largely slid beneath the surface of the Grenfell Tower story so far. A relatively small amount of its insulation was used on the building, and it was used against the design as we learned in the last module.
But yesterday, Ms Barwise (above) placed the company firmly in the centre of the story.
The story she told started in May 2005, when Kingspan’s K15 Kooltherm insulation product passed a large-scale fire test carried out at the Building Research Establishment (BRE).
This pass preceded a change to official building guidance (which we have explored here) that meant the use of Kingspan K15 could now legally be used on high rises in the exact cladding system in which it was tested.
But there was a problem. “The 2005 test was rendered irrelevant a year after it was carried out, since there was a huge change in K15 technology in 2006,” Ms Barwise said.
This change meant that K15 was effectively a new product with a “poor performance in fire”. When it was tested again in 2007 the test was described as a “raging inferno” by a Kingspan observer, with the problem being that “the K15 product was fully involved in the fire and continued to burn after the heat source was extinguished”.
Despite this, the 2005 test – which also used a steel and graphite cavity barrier not available commercially and of “phenomenal efficacy” – was used in Kingspan marketing for its K15 product from then on.
This marketing, Ms Barwise said, covered a wider use than the specific system tested.
“All Kingspan’s actions over a prolonged period were designed to give the impression that the 2005 test proved K15 could be safely used over 18m, regardless of whether the construction was the same or even close to that tested,” she said.
The product has gone on to become a market-leading insulation, present on thousands of buildings nationwide.
Kingspan, we learned shortly before Ms Barwise took to the stand, withdrew this test only last week, accepting that what was tested did not represent what it had been selling since 2006.
“All Kingspan’s actions over a prolonged period were designed to give the impression that the 2005 test proved K15 could be safely used over 18m, regardless of whether the construction was the same or even close to that tested”
Ms Barwise described Kingspan’s actions as having a “seminally causative role” in regard to the fire, as it “set the precedent” that combustible insulation could be used on high rises.
The firm also obtained ‘Class 0’ fire safety certificates for K15, which it based on tests of the foil face of the insulation only, not the whole product, Ms Barwise said. This was described internally as “a bit of a cheat” and “complete spin”.
Another major revelation was Kingspan’s alleged role in the production industry guidance, which weakened official rules from the mid-2000s onwards.
From 2014, guidance published by representatives for building control officers, the Building Control Alliance, suggested that it was permissible to use combustible cladding combinations on high rises without a test, so long as they were signed off by a fire professional as part of a so-called desktop study.
This went even further when additional guidance was published by the National House Building Council (NHBC) in 2016 which suggested that not even a desktop study was necessary for some combinations.
“It is now clear that Kingspan was actively involved in the drafting of both pieces of guidance, as internal email exchanges show,” Ms Barwise said. “Kingspan was, in its own words, ‘slowly educating the NHBC’.”
Finally, assessing post-Grenfell comments by the firm in a document first obtained by Inside Housing that showed it would continue to lobby for desktop studies, she described the firm’s attitude as follows: “Kingspan’s unrepentant arrogance is truly chilling.”
(A brief reminder to long-term readers: this lobbying was very nearly successful. The government was poised to formally approve the use of desktop studies in 2018 before lobbying from survivors and bereaved stopped this process in its tracks.)
In its opening statement, Geraint Webb QC, appearing for Kingspan, said further testing on K15 in 2015, 2016 and 2019 “supported and validated” the performance claims made historically.
Nonetheless, he offered a “full apology” for the discrepancies.
He also told the inquiry that Kingspan did not know that its product had been used on Grenfell Tower until after the fire, but that government testing “strongly indicates” that the cladding used in the refurbishment was unsafe regardless of what insulation was placed behind it.
Arconic made the Reynobond aluminium composite material cladding panels that (as we all now know) were deemed to be “the principal reason” the fire spread rapidly up and around Grenfell Tower on that horrifying night in June 2017.
The story told about Arconic also began in 2005, when the firm carried out a French ‘single burning item’ test on its polyethylene-cored cladding panels.
The test exposed something shocking: while the material could get a ‘B’ rating in a form designed to be bolted to a building with rivets, when it was bent into ‘cassettes’ in order to hang from rails, everything changed. It then burned fiercely, failing the test and receiving an ‘E’ rating (even in its riveted form it would later test at ‘C’).
But in 2006, at a strategy meeting in Luton, Arconic decided that a certificate from the British Board of Agrement (BBA) for its cladding was crucial to “capture the public sector of the market, which accounted for 50% of the available market”, in the words of Ms Barwise.
It obtained this certificate in 2008 on what she called “a false premise”. She said the firm did not tell the BBA about the Class E test on the ‘cassette’ version of the panel. Instead, it produced testing which showed that the panel met a UK standard: Class 0.
This test was not on the pure polyethylene-cored panel that would ultimately end up on Grenfell Tower, but a fire-retardant version.
Nonetheless, the BBA certificate suggested that both versions of the panel “may be regarded” as having a Class 0 surface. This certificate was eventually provided to the team who picked the product for Grenfell.
“[Arconic] had a clearly formulated marketing strategy of targeting architects and investors together with main contractors and installers, pushing the aesthetics of the product on to architects through [professional training]”
Internal emails show that Arconic was aware of what was happening. The Class E test was described as “very confidential” in one email. “It’s hard to make a note about this because we are not clean,” said Claude Wehrle, a senior member of Arconic’s technical team in 2010.
In 2015 he wrote: “PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to [fire resistant] as a matter of urgency.”
He added: “This opinion is technical and anti-commercial, it seems…”
Throughout this time, there were a number of huge cladding fires globally: in France, Australia and the Middle East. Ms Barwise said that Arconic was aware of them.
In fact, in April 2015, Mr Wehrle made the American president of Arconic Building & Construction Systems aware of the Euroclass E test and that it was, in his words, flammable.
Nonetheless, by 2013, Arconic “had a clearly formulated marketing strategy of targeting architects and investors together with main contractors and installers, pushing the aesthetics of the product on to architects through [professional training]”, in the words of Ms Barwise.
Craig Orr QC, appearing for Celotex, said “the evidence suggests” that Arconic pushed the more combustible PE product because “it was concerned to ensure that its products remained competitive in the UK, and its Reynobond PE panels were cheaper than panels with an A2 or fire-retardant core”.
In the event, as we learned in the previous module, a pursuit of the cheapest option and a preoccupation with aesthetics combined to result in the deadly cassette version of the PE panels being specified for Grenfell Tower.
For its part, Arconic said that the product had been “misused” in a way that was “entirely peculiar to Grenfell” and “could not have been predicted”.
It said that the design involved “numerous departures from building regulations” and that the product was “capable of being used safely if adequate safety measures are designed”.
Celotex provided the majority of the insulation for the tower, and as such there has already been more of a focus on its actions in testing and marketing its product.
This week’s revelations fleshed out this story. In 2013, the firm set out to also secure a test pass and certification that would allow it to compete with its fierce rival Kingspan in the market for high rise buildings.
But it initially struggled. An email first disclosed in January from this time considered giving up: “Do we take the view that our product realistically shouldn’t be used behind most cladding panels because in the event of a fire it would burn?”
It finally passed a test - also at the BRE facility - in May 2014, but this test was withdrawn in 2018 after it emerged that fire resistant magnesium oxide boards were used to fortify areas of the testing rig where temperature monitors are placed.
“Celotex went on to procure a misleading report from BRE which, apart from one photo, which Celotex had sought to remove, concealed the way in which the test had been distorted,” said Ms Barwsie.
“The photo Celotex had sought to remove clearly shows the effect of the reinforced cavity barrier at the top of the rig. It stopped the flames dead in their tracks.”
Following the testing - which only permitted the use of the product in the specific system tested - the firm obtained a certificate from LABC which said the product can “be used in a variety of systems”.
It then specifically targeted the Grenfell project - as we heard in the last module - listing it as its “number one must-win bid” in internal documents.
Ms Barwise also had harsh words for the firm’s use of fire retardants to obtain Class 0 ratings for its products - even though these certificates had no relevance to the suitability of insulation.
She referred to a research paper from its parent company Saint Gobain which she said “makes clear that this practice of including retardants is not only hazardous to health and the environment, but furthermore, it is done solely ‘in order to pass unrealistic fire safety tests’.”
Mr Orr, for Celotex, emphasised that all the staff involved in testing and marketing the product have left the company. He said a repeated test without the discrepancy was carried out successfully in April 2018.
He emphasised serious mistakes and non-compliances made by the design team who installed the cladding system. "These failings were fundamental and should have been identified by building control. None of these matters was Celotex's responsibility," he said.
An issue hanging over the proceedings was a further revelation at the start of the day that several witnesses from Arconic may not attend to give evidence at all.
This is because of a French law known as “the French blocking statute”, which carries potential criminal sanctions on those who disclose commercial matters to foreign courts.
In June this year, lawyers for Arconic said they believed that their witnesses giving oral evidence to the inquiry may engage this law.
They asked the inquiry to seek an intervention from the Foreign Office for an agreement between the UK government and the French government to offer an assurance that they will not be prosecuted for giving evidence. These discussions continue.
Richard Millett QC (above), counsel to the inquiry, said no evidence has been shown that there is a “real risk” of prosecution under this law.
“It is hard to think that the French prosecutor would wish to punish those individuals for giving evidence before a public inquiry in an erstwhile EU member state looking into a notorious fire in which so many were killed,” he said.
“Doubtless Arconic will have considered the impact of its witnesses’ refusal to give evidence on how they are viewed in the world beyond this Inquiry, and in particular by the markets, both for their own products and the financial markets.”
If the witnesses fail to attend, their evidence will be considered in their absence and the inquiry will explain the questions it would have asked them.
Stephen Hockman QC, appearing for Arconic, said that the individuals involved had taken separate legal advice and that the firm hoped an agreement could be made to provide an assurance that they could attend “without the risk of criminal prosecution”.
“Whilst the company obviously can’t control whether any witnesses testify, the company remains willing to do what it can to assist the inquiry in working with the French government,” he said.
Opening statements will continue on Monday, followed by a presentation from fire safety expert Dr Barbara Lane explaining the relevant materials and large-scale testing.
The first witnesses will be from Celotex, then Kingspan, then Aluglaze (which made infill panels around windows), then Siderise (which made the cavity barriers) and then Arconic (or at least, those who attend).
Witnesses from the BRE will then appear, followed by witnesses from the BBA and Herefordshire Council’s building control, which provided certificates for the K15 under the auspices of the Local Authority Building Control. Hearings will run until 1 February 2021, with a break for Christmas between 17 December and 11 January.
The week began with three days of evidence from Paul Hyett (above), an architect with 40 years’ experience and a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
He was grilled about whether the performance of Studio E met the standards of a “reasonably competent architect”, concluding that in many ways it did not.
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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. Pete 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
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