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Grenfell fire engineer ‘did not look at cladding plans'

9 July 2020

THE FIRE engineer for the tower’s refurbishment was sent the design report for the cladding, but did not view it as ‘he was not specifically asked to’, the inquiry into the fire was told.

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’.

Last week it was confirmed that the inquiry would begin hearing oral evidence again ‘on a limited attendance basis’ from today, after having been suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemicThat same month, it discussed plans to resume hearings remotely, while a later update noted that ‘potential options’ were outlined, with core participants and witnesses asked for their views on three options.

In late May, it received responses that ‘indicated a substantial consensus in favour of limited attendance hearings’, and more recently was ‘working towards’ resuming and ‘proceeding on the basis that the current restrictions will remain in place’, confirming it would restart on Monday 6 July.

The inquiry's restrictions caused ‘anger’ among the bereaved, survivors and other residents ‘who will be prohibited from attending’. Earlier this week, a senior fire engineer ‘did not raise the need for any proposed cladding system to have a separate fire safety assessment’, and The Guardian has now reported that the refurbishment’s fire engineer ‘did not look’ at the plans for cladding.

Exova’s senior associate Terry Ashton testified that he ‘did not look’ at the plans showing that the tower ‘might be wrapped’ in aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding ‘before advising that the works would not increase the risk of fire spreading across the building’. 

His role on the refurbishment was to advise on its fire safety and compliance with building regulations, and he denied ‘abdicating his responsibilities by not finding out about the cladding’, with the inquiry hearing that in October 2012 Studio E sent him a ‘detailed’ design report ‘spelling out plans’ to overclad the building ‘possibly with aluminium panels’. This included plans and sections showing how it would be fixed, alongside a ‘detailed diagram’ of the system, insulation and the tower.

However, Mr Ashton ‘did not open it’ and said that he ‘did not know’ about the plans, having not looked at the designs because he was ‘not specifically asked to’, with his decision made ‘partly’ due to these being ‘very lengthy documents’. Subsequently, he produced a fire safety strategy ‘that made no mention’ of the cladding plans, which said ‘the proposed changes will have no adverse effect on the building in relation to external fire spread’.

He added in that strategy that ‘this will be confirmed by an analysis in a future issue of this report’, with The Guardian pointing out that the wording ‘remained the same in two subsequent reports’. Inquiry counsel Kate Grange asked him ‘would you agree that maintaining this wording without clarifying the position about the cladding […] was an abdication of your responsibilities?’; to which he responded ‘I wouldn’t put it in those strong terms.

‘We can only react to what we are being given to look at. I will accept that maybe we should have pursued Studio E a bit more firmly, or at all, to say, “What are you doing about the external walls?”’. There was also nothing in the strategy about the requirement for cavity barriers to prevent fire spread throughout the cladding system, or the stay put policy, with Mr Ashton having previously told the inquiry he advised on the refurbishment’s fire safety ‘without visiting the tower block’.

He was also heard to have been sent a ‘package of works’ that included details on new rainscreen cladding, curtain walling and replacement windows, and had been asked to ‘look it over’. When Ms Grange asked him why he would not look at the documents, he stated that ‘we would not expect to look at a whole series of building packages just because we were part of the design team’.

She asked whether his conclusion that the plans ‘did not exacerbate’ external fire spread risks ‘might have created a false sense of security in the design team’, to which Mr Ashton replied that ‘they might have thought that, but they might have thought they should check with Exova’. Lead architect Bruce Sounes had testified there was ‘nothing’ from Exova that concerned them about the cladding, Mr Ashton stating ‘they didn’t ask me, “is everything OK?” […] we never had a dialogue with them’.

He was also asked about his ‘understanding’ of the BR 135 guidance on fire spread in external walls, to which he admitted that he had not read this ‘from cover to cover’, with Ms Grange asking ‘if you’d have read this guidance, it would have alerted you to that, wouldn’t it?’. He responded that ‘it would have done, yes. I am not sure I can say I had a laser-like focus about anything. I didn’t see fit to say to the design team, “We need to have a discussion about what we are doing about the overcladding.

‘I assumed that would happen at some point in the future. They didn’t tell me what they were doing’.

Grenfell fire engineer ‘did not look at cladding plans'