ARCONIC, THE cladding manufacturer of the combustible panels used on Grenfell Tower, had told its French customers to use its ‘more fire safe’ product a year before the fatal 2017 fire.

Debbie French, the company’s UK sales manager from 2007 to 2014, gave evidence at the inquiry last this week, and admitted she ‘knew’ the cladding could burn but ‘did not tell customers’, with the company providing the ‘more flammable’ panels ‘by default’ as part of a marketing strategy. Ms French said that the marketing strategy recognised the fire retardant version that ‘drastically increases fire resistance’ was ‘less likely to secure contracts on price’.

She knew the PE version of the Reynobond product ‘was and is flammable’, and it was also reported that Arconic sought to ‘keep secret’ differences between the polyethylene (PE) and fire retardant versions, with a report from a 2004 test in a French laboratory seeing the panels in a cassette form, as they were used in Grenfell. This test was stopped after 850 seconds because ‘it was emitting too much heat’.

Later last week, she revealed she ‘failed to tell’ customers about a report that showed it was ‘unsafe for use on high rises’, the inquiry hearing that in early February 2014 Arconic’s then technical manager Claude Wehrle – one of three Arconic executives refusing to give evidence at the inquiry – sent colleagues including Ms French a test report showing that the PE cladding only achieved Euroclass E – until then, it had used a 2008 report to claim it met Euroclass B.

This was the basis upon which the British Board of Agrement (BBA) had issued it a certificate stating the product ‘may be regarded’ as meeting the UK’s Class 0 rating, which ‘effectively cleared the product for use on high rises’ including Grenfell. Mr Wehrle’s email said that ‘the previous “B” class reported done for Reynobond PE in riveted system[s] can no more be used from now’.

However, the inquiry heard that Ms French ‘made no attempt’ to inform buyers about this update, and sent the ‘by now defunct’ BBA certificate to cladding subcontractors at Grenfell two months later. Most recently last week, she confirmed that Arconic continued to sell the PE cladding ‘despite concerns about its safety’, due to ‘cost implications’.

Her replacement in the role - Vince Meakins – took the stand next, and said late last week that he believed the company had a Class 0 test report for the PE product ‘right up until’ Grenfell caught fire. Inside Housing has now reported on Mr Meakins’ continued evidence, in which he revealed that Arconic had told French salespeople to ‘recommend a more fire safe product for all buildings from 2016 onwards’, but ‘did not do the same in the UK’.

Mr Meakins took on the UK sales manager role in May 2015, and was asked about instructions he was given by Arconic’s French headquarters in relation to sales of the PE panels, with an email shown from May 2016 that told the company’s French salespeople that Arconic was ‘a knowledgeable entity’ and ‘accepts its responsibility and image as a specialist in this field’.

It added that ‘in view of the potential calorific benefits’ of the fire resistant (FR) version of the cladding, versus the combustible PE version, ‘we have taken the proactive habit of favouring FR as the only solution in our specifications. As from today, I ask you to go even further and to systematically confirm in writing the requirement for FR for all projects on which a Reynobond specification is involved regardless of the nature and size of the building project’.

The news outlet stated that ‘at this point’ the company ‘was aware’ that the PE version was ‘performing extremely badly in fire tests’, while similar products had been involved in major fires worldwide, but Mr Meakins said that ‘no such instruction’ was given to him, stating that ‘up until the fire at Grenfell there was nothing said to me in terms of stopping putting forward PE’.

A spreadsheet was also shown that highlighted that by 2017, the company had sold 650,000m2 of the PE product to the UK market since 1998, ‘enough to cover 91 football pitches’, with sales of the product continuing into 2017. Mr Meakins was also shown a brochure published in December 2016, which ‘became notorious’ post Grenfell as it ‘advised against using the PE product above 10m’.

The document advised that ‘as soon as the building is higher than firefighters’ ladders it has to be conceived with an incombustible material’, and it advised against ‘using even the FR cored panel’ above 33m, with Grenfell 67.3m tall. This document was published shortly after the company ‘developed the ability’ to manufacture a non combustible, A2 rated product ‘for the first time’, and Mr Meakins said he had ‘not previously seen’ this version of the brochure document.

He told the inquiry that he had ‘been instructed to focus’ efforts on selling the FR product after a sales meeting shortly following on from him joining Arconic, but ‘by this point, the sale of the products for Grenfell Tower had already completed’. After his evidence concluded, Arconic’s French division’s president Claude Schmidt spoke, but his testimony started ‘late in the day’ and so he was ‘only asked a few questions’.

However, he confirmed he had reported to senior figures in the company’s US based parent business and ‘occasionally’ discussed technical matters with them. The inquiry had heard that Mr Wehrle meanwhile had visited the Chalcots Estate in Camden in May 2017 ‘due to an issue with the delamination of some of the panels’, and expressed surprise in his witness statement that ‘so many’ tall buildings ‘were making use of [aluminium composite material] PE’ cladding.

He added that he was ‘told by senior figures’ at contractor Rydon, which worked on both the five Chalcots towers and Grenfell – that ‘UK regulations permitted its use’, but Mr Meakins had attended and said he ‘did not recall the exchange’. An email exchange was shown to the inquiry which saw a customer of the company attempt to ‘get answers’ over the PE cladding’s fire safety credentials for another project.

Genius Facades’ Grahame Bryne emailed Arconic ‘multiple times […] expressing concerns’ over answers provided by Mr Wehrle, who in one answer said that ‘both Reynobond PE and Reynobond FR are well classified when tested for spread of flame’ in accordance with British standards, but that there was a ‘big difference between the two products when tested to European standards.

It was only after Mr Byrne made a ‘direct request’ that Mr Wehrle issued a letter stating the PE and FR products were classified as Class 0 when tested to BS 476 parts six and seven, though this letter added that the two products ‘are very different in their behaviour when exposed to a flame’. Test results showing that PE only achieved Euroclass E and FR achieved Euroclass B were also provided.

When shown this exchange, Mr Meakins agreed that Genius Facades had to push ‘very hard’ to get this information from Arconic, and that it ‘should have been quite clearly put to [Mr Byrne] that these two products were completely different, and it wasn’t’.