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Fire engineer ‘completely ignorant’ of Grenfell cladding plans

15 July 2020

TONY PEARSON stated at the inquiry into the fire that at the time of reviewing the fire strategy for the building’s refurbishment, he ‘had no clue’ that cladding was part of the plans.

The second phase began with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. ‘Key revelations’ included that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment were ‘accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’. 

The first week heard refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key report. However hearings were delayed due to witnesses asking for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This was granted, and the inquiry resumed.

The inquiry also acknowledged that Sir Martin had written to Attorney General Suella Braverman to ‘request an extension’ in late April, and she extended the rulingAfter the agreement had been made, testimony from architects Studio E admitted it ‘lacked experience in cladding tower blocks’ and was selected ‘despite never having carried out similar work’, without any ‘competitive procurement process, interview or design competition’.

Later, emails between senior fire engineers and consultants at Exova Warrington Fire saw admissions that refurbishment plans were making ‘a crap condition worse’, and ‘no sprinklers [were] wanted’. Studio E’s lead designer Neil Crawford then alleged that Celotex ‘calculatedly sought to deceive’ and ‘deliberately misled’ over its product’s safety ‘as if selling horsemeat as beef’.

Most recently, contractors appeared more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety, and on ‘appearance and cost’, while Exova consultant Cate Cooney had carried out a fire strategy report in 2012 on Grenfell in its original ‘state’ but ‘without visiting the site itself’, and included a ‘number of assumptions’.

After it was confirmed that the inquiry would begin hearing oral evidence again ‘on a limited attendance basis’, having been suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first week saw a senior fire engineer state they ‘did not raise the need for any proposed cladding system to have a separate fire safety assessment’, and another shared that he was sent the design report for the cladding, but did not view it as ‘he was not specifically asked to’. 

Earlier this week, the two Exova consultants were said to have given ‘no thought’ to evacuating disabled residents because the law ‘didn’t require them to’. Yesterday, Dr Tony Pearson’s testimony included revelations that Studio E and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) clashed over fire safety, specifically over firestopping ‘to prevent flames spreading between floors for at least two hours’. He also said that he had ‘hoped’ building regulators ‘would not notice’ that evacuation arrangements ‘might not be compliant’.

Inside Housing has now reported that on reviewing the refurbishment’s fire strategy he ‘had no clue that cladding was part of the plans’, and that as a senior consultant at Exova ‘at the time of reviewing the document’, he was ‘completely ignorant of the fact that the works included overcladding’.

In a summary of the refurbishment works, ‘there was no reference to cladding’, and the report has ‘come under scrutiny’ for a passage that read: ‘It is considered that the proposed changes will have no adverse effect on the building in relation to external fire spread but this will be confirmed by an analysis in a future issue of this report.’

There was also no consideration in a future fire strategy of the ‘possible safety impact’ of the cladding, and when asked whether he believed that the strategy should have been updated ‘in this respect’, Dr Pearson said ‘generally speaking, yes’. The last report undertaken by Exova ‘did not update’ the passage relating to external fire spread, and was reviewed by a ‘much more junior’ member of staff.

Dr Pearson was aware that cladding systems could pose fire risks as ‘an experienced fire engineer and an active on-call firefighter’, but ‘did not know’ that aluminium composite material panels ‘were being used as rainscreen facades’. Emails from October 2013 showed Dr Pearson was sent a copy of Exova’s second strategy, then sent it on to colleague and fellow witness Terry Ashton.

He stated in that communication that ‘I have added something (although if you think what I have added is too long and draws too much attention to the issue, feel free to shorten it)’. He had added a paragraph stating that the plans for ‘sharing means of escape between residential and non-residential accommodation is not endorsed by current statutory guidance’, but this did not breach building regulations as they were a ‘continuation of the existing principles’ for the tower.

In turn, fire risks from offices and a boxing gym in the tower were ‘no greater than those in a typical flat’, with Mr Ashton replying that he had sent the report out without reading this change, but ‘would not have agreed to the amendment anyway’ as it was ‘debateable’, despite Exova’s policy of peer reviewing all advice before sending it to clients.

Mr Ashton added that he hoped ‘Paul Hanson doesn’t pick up on it’, referring to the RBKC building control officer, as the department had a ‘reputation of being particularly hard to convince to accept anything non-standard’. Dr Pearson told the inquiry that Exova was ‘not trying to pull the wool on building control’s eyes’, and that his role was to provide ‘ad hoc assistance’ to Mr Ashton.

In 2015, an email from Dr Pearson to Mr Ashton stated that ‘if significant flames are ejected from the windows, this would lead to failure of the cladding system, with the external surface falling away and exposing the cavity, eliminating the potential for unseen fire spread’. Dr Pearson said this referred to a specific question about whether cavity barriers or stronger fire breaks were needed between compartments, and that he ‘still did not know which’ were being proposed.

He said this was ‘based on the assumption that everything else is code compliant’, and Inside Housing noted it ‘appears’ Mr Ashton had responded to Studio E’s Neil Crawford, who had asked the question ‘again, seemingly in breach’ of Exova’s peer review policies. Dr Pearson was asked if he had considered looking further into the cladding, and responded that this was ‘one of the big, great what-ifs’, and that he ‘took it on trust’ that Mr Ashton would know which materials would be used.

Fire engineer ‘completely ignorant’ of Grenfell cladding plans