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Grenfell Inquiry lays bare supply chain responsibility assumptions amidst 'merry-go-round of buck-passing'

Phase 2 of the Public Inquiry sees building architect blame the contractor. The contractor itself has blamed the product supplier

The Grenfell Inquiry has laid bare the extent to which decisions on design suitability were ‘passed down’ the supply chain, with a series of key stakeholders each denying that they bore ultimate responsibility for product compliance on the fatal refurbishment. The submissions have created a fierce debate as to what extent each contributor to a construction project should have knowledge of the role of individual products and their compliance to regulations.

At the same time, the Inquiry has heard that emails from cladding manufacturer Arconic and insulation manufacturer Celotex appear to acknowledge the combustibility risk of the ACM cassette product.- further throwing the issue of responsibility into question.

Counsels for the Grenfell residents were heavily critical of the role of the various companies in the supply chain.

Michael Mansfield QC, representing one group of residents, slammed the ‘wall of obfuscation’ from the corporate witnesess, before going on to highlight five key areas of failure, namely:

  • ”No single element of the cladding system complied with the Building Regulations. Together, the elements combined to fuel, rather than inhibit, the fire. Responsibility for the dangerous cladding system lies with many parties, including Studio E, Harley, Arconic/Alcoa, Celotex, Exova, Rydon, BBA and KCTMO/RBKC [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and the Royal Borough of Kengsington and Chelsea];
  • The background history of decision-making, budgetary considerations and planning is of crucial importance to what followed. RBKC and KCTMO were obsessed with cost and aesthetics, not fire safety, and this explains much of what ensued;
  • Procurement goes to the heart of what went wrong. RBKC and KCTMO selected an architectural practice which lacked the requisite experience of overcladding tower blocks, failed to appoint a fire consultant with an obligation to provide a comprehensive fire strategy for the refurbishment, chose Rydon because theirs was the cheapest bid, 3 even though it was unrealistically low, and failed to clarify or monitor the roles of Exova or Studio E post-novation;
  • Exova never produced a final or comprehensive fire strategy for the refurbishment works, and they never made any proper attempt to clarify what their role was;
  • RBKC’s Building Control Departmen failed in its obligations in respect of each of the requirements under the Building Regulations.

Mr Mansfield and colleagues representing other groups submitted reams of email evidence that they said showed lack of understanding of responsibilities relating to fire strategy and what appeared to be an intention to avoid regulatory processes - either to speed up the refurbishment programme or to avoid further cost.

Full submissions with evidence can be viewed at the Inquiry website’s evidence section.

The Inquiry counsel Richard Millett QC also heavily criticised the Inquiry’s core participants, from architects to product suppliers, for what he called ’a merry-go-round of buck passing’.

He acknowledged a limited admission from insulation manufacturer Celotex but said: “With that solitary exception, one finds in those detailed and carefully crafted statements there is not a trace of anyone accepting any trace of responsibility for what happened at Grenfell Tower. Not from the architects, contract managers, main contractors, specialist cladding firms, sub-contractors, fire safety experts or the TMO [Tenant Management Organisation].”

Core Participant Submissions: Studio E

Architect Studio E made it clear to the Inquiry that it had passed on design and compliance responsibility to Rydon as contractor. It said in its statement: ”Post-contract, Studio E was appointed by Rydon to provide architectural services during the construction stage of the Project. Rydon is a Design and Build Contractor that held itself out as having a speciality in refurbishing affordable housing, including high-rise residential towers. Upon appointment Rydon took on design responsibility for the project…lt was for Rydon and its specialist subcontractors to determine whether the materials proposed for the cladding and its fixtures were suitable and met the relevant requirements, as set out in the Employer’s Requirements.”

Rydon

In turn, contractor Rydon said that it could not reasonably expect to have the ’skills and knowledge’ required for specialist functions such as cladding.

It said in its statement: ”There is plainly an important distinction between what can be expected of a D&B contractor such as [Rydon] where it has reasonably delegated particular functions to consultants and specialist subcontractors who have particular skills and knowledge and where it has not. [Rydon] submits that it did not have, and cannot be fairly expected as a company to have had, the in-house level of skills expected of an architect such as Studio E or the expertise and experience of a specialist subcontractor such as Harley, or, indeed, any other specialist, regarding:  the selection and installation of products for safe use such as rainscreen cladding and insulation; or the selection, detailing and installation of infill panels, windows and window surrounds, cavity barriers and the crown.”

Rydon’s overall position is that it was the product manufacturers who were effectively responsible for ensuring their products were compliant. Its statement said: ”Reynobond PE and Celotex RS5000 were marketed and sold by their respective manufacturers as appropriate products to be considered for use on high rise buildings such as Grenfell Tower,  even though those manufacturers appear to have been aware of the potential dangers of their respective products.”.

The contractor went on to say: ”…If those involved in considering and deciding upon the specification for the rainscreen cladding system had not understood either from their direct dealings with the manufacturers or from the manufacturers’ literature that the cladding and insulation were not suitable, it is not reasonable to expect [Rydon] to have done so.”

Harley Facades

However, specialist cladding contractor Harley Facades also highlighted that it didnt consider itself responsible for product choice. Its own statement said: ”Harley did not decide what materials were to be used in relation to the rainscreen cladding and insulation. These materials were specified by the architects and lead designers, Studio E, in the [National Building Specification or NBS] for the project. In a project of this kind, the NBS document is the foundational document. The expectation, at least, is that it is assembled by the architect with the input of other specialist consultants, such as fire consultants as well as the Local Planning Authority and/or Building Control. Accordingly, in the case of Grenfell Tower, Harley’s assumption was that the products specified for use in the cladding and the insulation of the rainscreen were suitable for the project.”

Arconic

The Inquiry also heard from Rydon that in email correspondence, Arconic’s Claude Wehrle appeared to acknowledge that PE material in its cladding was not fire-compliant, the regulatory climate in the UK would allow its use. In an email that could prove crucial, he said: “For the moment, even if we know that PE material in cassette has a bad behavior exposed to fire, we can still work with national regulations who are not as restrictive.” 

Celotex

Rydon also referred to emails amongst employees Jonathan Roper and Paul Evans of insulation manufacturer Celotex which also appears to cast doubt on the ability of the fitness of its product in high-rise cladding. The email said:“We cannot seem to find or design a suitable barrier in which we have enough confidence that it can be used behind a standard ACM panel, which we know will melt and allow fire into the cavity … Or 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.”

Max Fordham

The intial submission from the building services engineer sets out that the professional advice regarding insulation was limited to its suitability for sustainability and energy purposes and not to fire resistance. The company particularly sought to counter the comments made previously by Expert Witness Paul Hyett which alleged that Max Fordham should have known the insulation was non-compliant to Building Regs. It said the Inquiry should note: ”The limited context in which [the suggestion of Celotex FR5000] was made…, which was to lend assistance to the Architect in identifying a material that could not only achieve the target thermal efficiency but also do so at a set level of thickness sought by the Architect for aesthetic or architectural reasons. As would have been clear to all parties involved at the time, this assistance was not intended to perform the Architect’s role and advise as to the product’s overall suitability for purpose.”

It added: ”Building services engineers would not reasonably be expected to consider or advise upon Part B of the Building Regulations so far as exterior cladding or insulation is concerned. This is particularly so when the Architect, as Lead Consultant, would be expected to possess that expertise and also had access to specialist cladding and fire safety engineering expertise.”

JS Wright

M&E contractor JS Wright told the Inquiry that it had very little involvement in the external works, and that the scope of its work was limited to kitchen extract fans and their connections, which will be dealt with in Module 2 of the Inquiry. However it sought to clarify that the function is cooking odour extraction and not smoke extraction. It added that it had dealings with Building Control to report regarding the smoke ventilation system, when required in Module 3.

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