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Missing information and cladding revelations at inquiry

16 July 2020

ONE OF the architects for Studio E testified that no records were kept of drawings, and that aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding was the ‘cheaper option’.

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. 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, 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 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’.

More recently, contractors appeared more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety, and on ‘appearance and cost’, while Exova consultant Cate Cooney 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 pandemicthe 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’, while 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, two Exova consultants were said to have given ‘no thought’ to evacuating disabled residents because the law ‘didn’t require them to’. Then, Dr Tony Pearson’s testimony included revelations that Studio E and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) clashed over fire safety, and that he ‘had no clue that cladding was part of the plans’.

BD Online and Inside Housing reported on evidence from Bruno Sounes, who admitted Studio E had ‘failed to record for two years whether any documents were sent to building control’ or Exova on a document distribution list and register of drawings for the recladding, from September 2013 to July 2015, and that this was ‘not good practice’. This was ‘entirely blank’, though Mr Sounes believed it was not a ‘serious omission’.

Inquiry counsel Kate Grange said that ‘it appears from the face of this document that there is no record of any information issued being made to either Exova or RBKC building control’, and ‘doesn’t seem to record at any time in that period what information was issued to building control or Exova’. She asked Mr Sounes ‘is it right that the document register and issue advice should have recorded key milestones in terms of the issue of documents?’, to which he agreed.

She also asked whether he agreed that it ‘should have recorded those drawings issued to Exova and building control’, such as a pack sent on 24 September 2014 post full plans application. Mr Sounes again agreed, before Ms Grange asked ‘would you agree that the failure to record what drawings were issued to building control and Exoca is a serious omission on Studio E’s part?’.

Mr Sounes replied that ‘it would be an omission if there was no record, but I believe there are records. It is not good practice to not maintain a drawing issue sheet but there is a record’. He agreed however that this was ‘piecemeal’ and involved referring back to emails. She then asked if he agreed ‘it’s not possible to determine from this register whether Exova and building control might have been missing any particularly key documents’, to which Mr Sounes again said ‘yes’.

Ms Grange then quoted from the Royal Institute of British Architects’ handbook of practice management, with Mr Sounes agreeing with its mention of the importance ‘given to keeping a clear record of exactly what documentation is issued on a project, to whom and when’. He also agreed it was a ‘long-standing convention’ for all documents issued to be ‘recorded in a drawings issue register’, and admitted he ‘did not chase’ Exova for a final fire safety report.

He also could not remember if he had told Mr Crawford ‘that this was outstanding when he handed over the day-to-day running of the project’, and could ‘not recall’ telling building control that cladding had changed from zinc to ACM, but ‘would expect such details to be dealt with further down the line’.

He admitted ACM was ‘seen as a cheap alternative’ to Studio E’s preference for zinc, and according to emails was focused on getting proposals past RKBC’s planning department, with one planner concerned about ‘plastic’. ACM was included as an option in a November 2013 tender to select the main contractor, and was ‘subsequently proposed’ by winner Rydon.

Mr Sounes believed ACM was included because Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation ‘wanted a cheaper alternative’, with the refurbishment having previously ‘stalled’ due to cost issues, surveyor Appleyards warning in February 2013 that previous contractor Leadbitter quoted £483,000 more ‘than had been budgeted’.

Cladding subcontractor Harley Facades was ‘brought on board’ by Mr Sounes as a means of ‘de-risking’ the project, and said swapping zinc for ‘standard ACM’ would save over £500,000, as well as that it would prefer to use ACM ‘from a Harley-selfish point of view’. Mr Sounes had ‘not thought’ about fire performance of cladding options, and ‘we all believed we were choosing cladding products that had been used many times before’.

He ‘did not consider’ if fire safety would be compromised by cheaper products, or whether some ‘might be more fire resistant than others’, stating that ‘until the night of the fire I had no knowledge that the products came in different varieties of core’; while combustible foam insulation was used ‘in the interest of trying to meet energy efficiency ratings […] twice as high as required’, but meeting fire standards ‘wasn’t a serious concern’ because he presumed that as it charred it was safe to use.

Asked if he would have done anything differently, Mr Sounes said: ‘Obviously I’ve had a long time to think about this. I think it’s a very cruel question. I watched all the fire experts’ evidence and then quite a bit later I studied the DCLG tests and, um, in a sense that was more revealing. But I had no idea. I don’t believe anyone involved in the project would have not acted had they known.’

Missing information and cladding revelations at inquiry