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Grenfell insulation ‘assumed’ to be safe

31 July 2020

RYDON’s TWO site managers ‘assumed’ that the insulation fitted around windows on the tower were fire resistant, the inquiry into the fire heard.

The second phase began with hearings delayed due to witnesses asking that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions’. This was granted and later extendedAfter resuming post COVID-19 suspensionthe first week heard a senior fire engineer ‘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 didn't view it. 

Two fire consultants gave ‘no thought’ to evacuating disabled residents; Studio E and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea clashed over fire safety; another consultant ‘had no clue that cladding was part of the plans’and a Studio E architect said no drawing records were kept and aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding was the ‘cheaper option’.

Rydon contracts manager Simon Lawrence admitted it ‘overlooked’ a key document ‘regarding the fire hazards of certain cladding materials’ and relied on other companies to check subcontractor work; admitted it ‘did not check’ the ‘expertise’ of Studio E; admitted it ‘pocketed’ £126,000 from the switch to ACM; denied giving assurances about ACM not burning ‘at all’; and called residents ‘rebels’ and ‘persistent and aggressive’.

There was ‘no evidence’ Rydon employees had responded to emails ‘seeking clarification on cladding safety’; and Rydon project manager Simon O’Connor admitted he ‘did not know’ about nor was 'familiar' with fire safety regulations or building regulations, and was ‘unaware’ of some responsibilities ‘as it was his first’ such jobThen, final site manager David Hughes believed Rydon had been ‘quite thorough’ in checking work quality.

This week, refurbishment director Stephen Blake started to give evidence, and the inquiry heard that the company was asked for a ‘quick and dirty’ costing for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, and was ‘informally advised’ it was first choice for the job ahead of the end of procurement. He then said he has been ‘haunted’ by the ‘lack of scrutiny’ that the cladding and window designs were given.

BD Online and Construction News reported on testimony from Rydon site managers Gary Martin and Daniel Osgood as the inquiry concluded another week, with both men stating that they ‘did not know’ that combustible material was being used to fill gaps, and that they had ‘assumed’ the insulation material being fitted around window areas on Grenfell ‘was not a fire risk’.

Mr Martin was site manager from July 2015 to March 2016, and said in a written statement that he believed that the foil backed material used to fill gaps between original window frames and new windows in the cladding was a ‘fire-resistant seal’. However, at the inquiry he said that he now ‘understood’ the product was combustible insulation, with inquiry counsel Kate Grange asking him what he had believed the material was at the time.

In response, Mr Martin said that though he had not been ‘100% sure’, he believed the foil backed materials was ‘some kind of fire-delay and smoke-deterrent’, and asked how he had come to this belief, he said it had been a ‘process of elimination […] it had to be there for a reason, otherwise we wouldn’t have put it in’.

Mr Martin also said that as the project had begun before he joined, the product was already being installed, so he ‘did not ask anybody what its purpose had been’. Ms Grange asked if it was ‘right that you’ve made an assumption that it was a fire-resistant product’, to which he responded ‘correct’, and Mr Martin added that he now accepted that the product had been combustible insulation.

He continued by stating that although his work had involved inspecting areas around windows in the flats before new uPVC ones were fitted, he had only been checking ‘for any gaps in the material installed’, BD Online noting that the first phase report cited the ‘presence’ of polyisocyanurate and phenolic foam insulation boards behind ACM panels, and as components of window surrounds, which ‘contributed to the rate and extent of vertical flame spread’.

Mr Martin was shown photos of the windows post fire, with insulation clearly marked with Celotex and Kingspan branding, and was asked if he agreed that ‘what you thought was a fire-resistant seal or a fire barrier was actually a combustible insulation product?’. He agreed and said that it had been ‘merely an assumption’.

Asked later what he based his presumption on that the project was compliant with building and fire safety regulations, Mr Martin stated: ‘I quite often escorted building safety [building control] around the building during their visits because they had to be accompanied, and there was nothing ever picked up at the time, so I presumed that we were compliant.’

Mr Osgood’s evidence meanwhile saw him asked about his experience on the project as site manager between April and July 2015, with Ms Grange questioning him about his witness statement, where he had said that fire retardant materials had been used for window trims and boxing in. She asked ‘on what basis are you asserting that the materials were fire retardant?’, and he replied that ‘from my memory, it was a fire-retardant MDF board that was used’.

He stressed however that his main experience had been on the “pilot” flat, and that he had never checked that the material surrounding the windows was fire retardant, as well as that he had ‘no memory’ of asking anyone else at Rydon whether it was. Questioned further, he said he ‘would expect’ that someone at Rydon had made sure materials used to fill surrounds did not breach each flat’s compartmentation.

Mr Osgood commented that ‘I was under the impression that everything had to be 100% fire-proof or it couldn’t go on’, and that he ‘did not know’ that different kinds of insulation had different fire performance characteristics.

Grenfell insulation ‘assumed’ to be safe