Rydon’s contract manager used “Essex boy patter” to push the use of cheaper cladding options for Grenfell Tower, the inquiry into the fire heard today.
The firm, which was revealed yesterday to have hidden the true size of potential savings on cladding to boost its own profit margin, wanted to use a cheaper “face-fixed” system rather than panels which had been cut into cassettes.
But planners at Kensington and Chelsea Council favoured the cassette system because they believed it gave a smoother and more aesthetically pleasing look.
“I have a gut feeling that [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO)] may go [for] the cassette fixed cladding option due to the perceived cladding risk,” wrote contract manager Simon Lawrence in an internal Rydon email. “I’m giving it my hardest sales pitch as we speak. Come on the Essex boy patter!”
In the event the planners had insisted on the cassette system despite the additional cost. This system is believed to have been far more dangerous in terms of fire performance as it exposed more of the combustible polyethylene core to the fire.
The exchange came in May 2014, when Rydon was seeking planning permission to switch the zinc cladding that had originally been specified to aluminium composite material (ACM) in order to save money.
In the emails Mr Lawrence had said he would “put forward our case that ACM is not an inferior product to zinc” to the planners.
Today he said that this referred only to “visual and aesthetics” rather than fire performance.
“The intention was we needed to make the case for everybody that ACM wasn’t a cheap, throwaway material in comparison to zinc,” he said.
Later in the day, he also denied giving an assurance that the cladding system was “inert” and “would not burn at all”.
Today the Grenfell Inquiry saw a witness statement from David Gibson, head of capital investment at KCTMO, which alleged he had specifically questioned Mr Lawrence about the fire risk from the cladding. He said he had been surprised to learn there would be a gap between the cladding panels and insulation, and was concerned this could create a chimney effect for flames.
“I raised this with [Mr] Lawrence as a matter of serious concern and asked him if he could give some assurance that we would not have a Lakanal-type problem,” his witness statement said – referring to the Lakanal House fire in 2009 which killed six people after spreading across combustible window panels.
“[Mr] Lawrence assured us that this would create no problems because the materials used were completely inert and would not burn at all. The meeting accepted his assurances in this regard.”
Mr Gibson said he had a “clear recollection” of the discussion from reading it in the meeting minutes. “I recall that ‘Lakanal’ had been spelled incorrectly in the minutes,” he said.
But when asked about this, Mr Lawrence said: “I don’t agree with it at all… I wouldn’t give technical assurances unless I had that information from designers or specialists.”
Mr Lawrence was also shown an email from Claire Williams, project manager at KCTMO, where she said she had a “Lacknall [sic] moment” and asked him for “clarification on the fire retardance of the cladding”.
Mr Lawrence did not reply and said today that he assumed she was referring to a small section of glass reinforced cladding on the lowest floor of the building rather than the whole system.
He was also asked to discuss a pitch from insulation manufacturer Rockwool in summer 2014 to replace the combustible insulation planned for Grenfell Tower with a non-combustible mineral wool alternative produced by the firm.
Rockwool said that this switch could secure additional environmental grants under the Energy Company Obligation funding programme.
The emails from Rockwool spelled out that its insulation had a “superior fire rating of Euroclass A1” which made it “particularly suited to high rise”. They proposed switching the ACM for their non-combustible Rockpanel system.
“You get a lot of approaches from manufacturers wanting to use their product on projects… but we didn’t know there was any difference between one or the other in terms of fire safety or anything else,” said Mr Lawrence.
In the end, Celotex RS5000 was used on the tower – an insulation made from the plastic polyisocyanurate, which is combustible and releases toxic gases when burned – despite a regulatory requirement that insulation on high rises be non-combustible or tested.
Mr Lawrence was also asked about the substitution of this insulation with Kingspan phenolic foam for some of the lower parts of the building.
He said he had no awareness that almost 150 sheets of this material arrived on site in May and September 2015, suggesting that the change may have come about due to financial difficulties being experienced by contractor Harley Facades.
“I think I might have an insight from now, since the disaster and since the evidence has come up. I think it’s relating to their credit limit and ceasing to trade one company and starting to trade with another,” Mr Lawrence said.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry continues tomorrow with further evidence from Mr Lawrence.
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
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