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Rydon director ‘haunted’ by lack of cladding scrutiny

30 July 2020

STEPHEN BLAKE, the company’s refurbishment director on the project, said he has been ‘haunted’ by the ‘lack of scrutiny’ that the cladding and window designs were subjected to.

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.

Yesterday, Mr 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. BD Online has now reported on his comment that he has been ‘haunted’ by the ‘lack of scrutiny’ that the project’s cladding and window designs were subjected to.

He noted ‘in hindsight’ that ‘key elements’ of the refurbishment ‘had been presumed to be correct when they were not’, and had ‘been clear’ that he had believed it was Studio E’s responsibility to ‘arrange’ and pay for any specialist fire safety advice, even after Rydon had been appointed as main contractor. Inquiry counsel Richard Millett asked him whether it was normal for a principal contractor in this position to proceed through construction without seeking fire safety advice.

Mr Blake responded that he ‘expected’ such issues to be ‘flowed through the architectural development’, while the news outlet noted that Exova had been hired by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) to produce an outline fire safety strategy in 2013, but was ‘not novated’ once Rydon was appointed in 2014.

In Mr Blake’s experience, a fire safety consultant was ‘generally’ employed before Rydon was involved in a project, with findings used to inform strategy, layout and means of escape on tender drawings. He confirmed that he had no experience of working on projects with novated architects – as Studio E were on Grenfell – but had been ‘very happy’ as ‘I didn’t see that situation was any different to a non-novated architect. It’s employment of a schedule of services’.

The inquiry also heard that although Rydon and Studio E had discussed the terms of engagement on the project for the architects ‘as early as’ April 2014, there was no formal agreement until February 2016, Mr Millett asking Mr Blake if he considered this a risk for Rydon to have design and build responsibility but no architect sub contract in place, meaning it was ‘on the hook’ for all that Studio E had done to date, and Mr Blake responded ‘potentially’.

He was then asked if he had been concerned that Studio E had not understood ‘what it was signing up to’ in 2016, and answered that he knew there had been a ‘debate’ between Studio E and Rydon’s legal team on some of the points of the schedule of services, but these had been technical and had been resolved.

Mr Millett noted that Studio E’s project lead Bruno Sounes had told the inquiry that the agreement to the terms of engagement in February 2016 had been obtained ‘under duress’, and Mr Blake was asked if he had ever told Studio that Rydon ‘was not prepared to pay’ its invoices unless they agreed, to which he responded ‘no, I didn’t.

Later, Mr Millett noted that Rydon had scored ‘the highest of any bidders’ in terms of the quality of CVs of key project staff, claiming that Rydon ‘had ramped up’ details on at least one CV. The CVs were a bid requirement, and were rated as part of the tender evaluation, specifically the CV of Mr O’Connor, the ‘individual responsible for the co-ordination of the design’. As had been revealed previously, this CV had ‘several inaccuracies’ and was a ‘thoroughly misleading document’.

Mr Blake agreed, stating that the CVs submitted had been compiled by Rydon’s business development team’, and when asked what he would have done differently stated: ‘Hindsight is a gift that none of us have. In the examination, it’s very clear that at a point in time, when I believed the presentation and the acceptance of the windows and the cladding designs had been accepted to the satisfaction […] through the design process and the submission and the exchange of building control.

‘I believed this to be correct and it haunts me that it was never … that it wasn’t challenged because it was believed to be correct.’

Rydon director ‘haunted’ by lack of cladding scrutiny