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Grenfell architect ‘expertise’ not checked

20 July 2020

THE MAIN contractor for the tower’s refurbishment ‘did not check’ the ‘expertise’ of the architects chosen for the project, its contracts manager admitted at the inquiry into the 2017 fire.

The second phase began earlier this year, seeing hearings delayed due to witnesses asking for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This was granted and later extendedAfter the inquiry resumed post suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemicthe first week saw a senior fire engineer state she ‘did not raise the need for any proposed cladding system to have a separate fire safety assessment’, while another was sent the cladding design report but did not view it as ‘he was not specifically asked to’. 

Earlier this month, two Exova consultants said they gave ‘no thought’ to evacuating disabled residents because the law ‘didn’t require them to’, before it was revealed architects Studio E and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) clashed over fire safety, and another ‘had no clue that cladding was part of the plans’.

Last week, a Studio E architect said no records were kept of drawings, and that aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding was the ‘cheaper option’, before Rydon contracts manager Simon Lawrence began his testimony by admitting that the company ‘overlooked’ a key fire safety document ‘regarding the fire hazards of certain cladding materials’ as well as relying on other companies to check subcontractors’ work.

BD Online reported on Mr Lawrence’s continued testimony at the inquiry, at which he stated that Rydon ‘did not check’ if Studio E ‘had the relevant knowledge for the project’, and admitted that he had personally ‘not known at the time’ that the architectural firm ‘had never worked on a high-rise residential scheme before’. Inquiry counsel Richard Millett asked him about how Rydon had procured the design team, and devised its schedule of services in 2014 for the refurbishment.

Mr Lawrence explained that Studio E were chosen having already been working for RBKC’s tenant management organisation on both Grenfell and the adjacent KALC school and leisure centre, and added: ‘So you would expect a due diligence there; they were also working with, again, a much larger contractor on a much larger project next door. I think to ask for a specialism in residential high-rise overcladding, I don’t know, but I would imagine there were very few and far between architects that specialise in that.’

When asked by Mr Millett whether he or Rydon had investigated and ‘satisf[ied] themselves’ that Studio E understood statutory requirements and guidance on cladding, Mr Lawrence said: ‘We wouldn’t have asked that question. No, we wouldn’t have asked that question. But you would expect an architect to have an understanding of the products that they are specifying and designing.’

Mr Millett also asked if Rydon was satisfied that Studio E was ‘competent and sufficiently resourced’ for the job, with Mr Lawrence commenting that ‘there was a process’ but that another department would have responsible, while there would also have been due diligence before adding the company to Rydon’s preferred suppliers list. In turn, Mr Millett asked if Mr Lawrence ‘or anybody else’ at Rydon had checked the resources Studio E was ‘able to devote’ to the project.

To this, Mr Lawrence replied: ‘When you say check, you know, we knew we had – I had been to visit them, we had, you know, we had done – I’m not sure we asked them if they’ve got 10 people and they’ve got 10 people free and they’re not working on any other projects, no, we wouldn’t have been as specific as that, but we would also have expected that if they can’t continue with the project because they haven’t got the resources, for them to be telling us of that.

‘I think it’s – I think by the fact you’re contracting with someone, you’re taking it as read that they’ve got the resources to be able to carry out the works.’

On being asked about Rydon’s due diligence into Studio E’s high-rise residential overcladding experience, he commented: ‘I don’t think it would be unusual that you’ve got a – you know, we knew they were a reasonably large firm at the time before they changed. We knew they were working for tier 1, tier 2 principal contractors next door to Grenfell.

‘You know, we knew that they were doing cladding on that process. So, from a – observing what they had – what they were doing at the time, it didn’t raise any concerns.’

Mr Lawrence was also asked about changes suggested to Rydon’s standard form in April 2015 by Studio E’s Bruno Sounes, and he ‘could not explain’ why this was not signed until a year later, after he had left Rydon. Mr Sounes’ replacement on the project, Neil Crawford, had also had an ‘informal’ discussion with Mr Lawrence about design responsibility, which had led left Mr Crawford ‘surprised’ that Studio E had less design work to do ‘than would be normal under the RIBA plan of work’.

On this, Mr Crawford said that Studio E’s role post novation was ‘limited to responding to specific queries’, and in response Mr Lawrence said that he ‘had no memory of this conversation’.

Grenfell architect ‘expertise’ not checked