According to recent press reports the cladding and insulation system used in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was never subject to legally required fire safety tests. It was reported in The Times on 7th February and The Independent the following day, that no record of independent testing had been found by any of the three separate investigations into the Grenfell fire. It is claimed that neither the government’s expert panel on fire safety, the Metropolitan Police Investigation, or the review of building regulations by Dame Judith Hackitt had found any evidence of such testing.
It is also believed that the same potentially applies with regard to 299 other high-rise buildings in England that use similar cladding and insulation, including at least nine hospitals, 160 social housing blocks, 31 student residences, 13 public buildings and 95 private residential blocks.
The Times quoted a source with knowledge of the investigations saying;
“The question that has to be asked is how on earth did this material come to be installed on all of those buildings. Somehow or other, those materials have got on to 300 buildings without any tests being done or test results being produced.”
The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, in which 72 innocemt victims lost their lives in a raging inferno on 14th June last year, was signed off by building control managers at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 2016. However, if the reports in the Times and the Independent are correct, the cladding and insulation system never underwent the required mandatory safety testing. Furthermore, Reynobond ACM cladding panels, in combination with Celotex RS5000 PIR insulation, were fitted during a major refurbishment of the block in 2016, neither of which had been approved in the planning consent issued for the works in January 2014. On the contrary the planning consent for the Grenfell project specified ZINC rainscreen cladding (not the aluminium type used) and Celotex FR5000 insulation (not the Celotex RS5000 used).
It has been widely suggested that the highly flammable cladding and Celotex polyisocyanurate (PIR) insulation foam were major contributors to the rapid and unprecedented spread of the blaze, which killed 72 people in June last year. In light of these revelations we believe that a review of the circumstances under which Rydon were awarded the contract for the Grenfell project should be both informative and intriguing.
According to a report prepared for the RBKC Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee in July 2013 Leadbitter, at that time the main contractor for the Kensington Academy and Leisure Centre Project, was also the favored potential contractor for the Grenfell Tower project. Leadbitter, however, submitted an estimate of £11.278 million for the cost of the project. This was £1.6 million above the budget proposed by RBKC and, despite considerable pressure from RBKC to reduce this estimate, Leadbitter insisted they were unable to do so and couldn’t deliver the scheme within the proposed budget. RBKC planners, having tried and failed to pressurise Leadbitter into reducing their bid, instead reverted to an open competitive tendering process for the project. At this point it would appear that either Leadbitter were excluded from the bidding process or had withdrawn from it. Consequently, in February 2014, the contract was awarded to Rydon who had successfully undercut Leadbitter’s estimate by a considerable margin.
Assuming that Leadbitter were genuinely unable to bid within budget while maintaining quality and health and safety standards, this raises questions about how Rydon managed to submit a bid that substantially undercut Leadbitter and all other competitors. Did they achieve this at the expense of quality and essential health and safety considerations, notably by substituting the safer external cladding and insulation specified in the planning application with cheaper, more toxic and flammable alternative cladding and insulation that were responsible for the uniquely rapid spread of the Grenfell fire and led to the needless and totally avoidable loss of 72 lives under the most terrible of circumstances?
Reports in the Times and BBC online news in June 2017 strongly suggest that RBKC were fully aware that under Rydon corners would be cut and health and safety compromised, that they were fully complicit with this strategy and that they had pressurised Rydon and their subcontractors to cut costs wherever possible, regardless of the consequences.
On 24 June 2017 Reuters reported on an exchange of six emails sent by and to an Arconic sales manager that raise questions about the supply by Arconic of highly combustible cladding for use at Grenfell Tower, despite having publicly warned the companies concerned that such panels posed a potential fire risk for tall buildings.
The emails, dating from 2014 and seen by Reuters, were between Deborah French, Arconic’s UK sales manager, and executives at the contractors (ie Rydon or their sub-contractors) seeking to procure materials for the planned refurbishment works.
French, who was based at Arconic’s factory in Merxheim, France, responded between May and July 2014 to requests on the availability of samples of five different types of Reynobond aluminium-covered panels, all of which were only available in the combustible PE and FR versions. The company manufactures three main types of Reynobond panel — one with a polyethylene (PE) core, one with a slightly more fire retardant core (FR) and a third with an entirely non-combustible core (A2).
When asked about the emails, Arconic said in a statement that it had known the panels would be used at Grenfell Tower but that it was not its role to decide what was or was not compliant with local building regulations.
A 2016 Arconic brochure for Reynobond panels describes PE core panels as suitable for structures up to 10 metres in height. According to the same brochure panels with a fire resistant core — the FR model — should be used up to 30 metres, while above that height, panels with the non-combustible core — the A2 model — should only be used.
Nonetheless, between May and July 2014, French responded to requests from the companies involved on the availability of samples of five different types of Reynobond aluminium-covered panels, all of which were only available in the PE and FR versions.
Despite having warned that the combustible Reynobond PE panels were safe to use on high rise buildings only if the insulation material behind the panels was made of non-combustible material such as mineral fibre, Arconic nonetheless supplied the PE panels which were ultimately used with highly combustible Celotex RS5000 insulation.
Whether or not the Arconic PE aluminium cladding used at Grenfell did or did not satisfy the BS standard is ultimately irrelevant because the underlying insulation certainly did not. Behind its shining metal surface, the tower was coated in a 6 inch layer of highly flammable and highly toxic foam insulation (Celotex RS5000) made from a plastic called polyisocyanurate that does not meet the required standard of ‘limited combustibility’. Indeed, according to a special feature published recently by Inside Housing magazine, Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack, who is overseeing the criminal investigation into the fire, said that the insulation was “more flammable than the cladding”.
If both elements of the insulation system had achieved the limited combustibility standard in separate tests, then a combined test would not have been necessary. However Reynobond PE and Celotex RS5000 did not satisfy the combustibility tests separately. This meant that the two materials combined would need to pass another test known as BS 8414 to show that both materials, when used together, were sufficiently resistant to combustion to satisfy the UK building standard. The BS 8414 test must be commissioned from a government approved independent testing agency. It involves setting a fire under a three-storey mock-up of the proposed wall construction. Without proof that BS 8414 testing had been carried out, the cladding system would not have met building regulations. That proof is apparently not in evidence so the Grenfell cladding system should never have been approved by building control managers at RBKC.
According to Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government in response to the outcry over the Grenfell fire;
“I have found that the regulatory system for safely designing, constructing and managing buildings is not fit for purpose. The current system of building regulation is highly complex and there is confusion about the roles and responsibilities at each stage. It has become clear that the whole system of regulation is not fit for purpose, leaving room for those who want to take shortcuts to do so.
I have been shocked by some of the practices I have heard about and I am convinced of the need for a new intelligent system of regulation and enforcement for high-rise and complex buildings which will encourage everyone to do the right thing and will hold to account those who try to cut corners.”
In our view culpability for the Grenfell fire, and the 72 deaths that resulted, must extend from those responsible for proposing the cladding system that was installed on the exterior of Grenfell Tower, to the local authority for signing off on its use, and the building contractors for fitting such dangerous materials. We also believe that the lack of a rigorous testing regime, despite the considerable known risks, is strongly suggestive of a system bordering on criminal conspiracy at the heart of what are supposedly called “building standards”. These apparently exist not for the protection of the public, but primarily to enable the use of the lowest cost materials and to generate, regardless of the risks to public safety, the maximum possible profits for the construction giants and property speculators.
While we were still working on this blog and just about to publish it startling new revelations emerged on 5th April that the controversial Celotex PE cladding installed at Grenfell Tower had failed to meet the safety standards originally claimed by its manufacturer Arconic. Fire tests had been secretly carried out by Arconic the year before the cladding was installed at Grenfell, according to a BBC investigation. Arconic,who had commissioned the tests, did not publish the results. Arconic claimed it had informed ‘various customers and certification authorities’ but the British body that certifies building products claimed it had not been notified.
Fire resistant zinc cladding was initially proposed for the £9 million refurbishment in 2012 but was ultimately substituted for a cheaper aluminium and plastic version, at a saving of £293,368. The planning approval issued in January 2014 was based in part on the Sustainability and Energy Statement published in October 2012 as a crucial part of the planning application. It specified the use of zinc rainscreen cladding in combination with Celotex FR insulation, both of which were later substituted for cheaper and highly combustible alternatives in breach of the specifiications in the planning consent.
In standard European tests for fire safety, products are rated A to F, with ‘A’ being the safest. The BBC investigation found tests commissioned by Arconic in 2014 and 2015 produced lower classifications. Cladding classed as ‘riveted’ was tested and classified as ‘C’ in 2014 and 2015. Panels classed as ‘cassette’ – meaning they were shaped before being fitted – were classified as ‘E’. Both types of panel were reportedly installed at Grenfell.
The BBC spoke to one source, who has worked on major cladding schemes, though not on Grenfell Tower. He said he should have been informed of the new classification results by Arconic and they should have issued an immediate product recall. He added that ‘E’ rated cladding would not have been acceptable for the projects he worked on.
“TO BE BLUNT”, HE SAID, “YOU WOULDN’T PUT ‘E’ ON A DOG KENNEL”