The inquiry that follows the June 2017 fire, in which 72 people died at the Grenfell Tower in West London, has highlighted some of the shocking tactics of the management company and insulation and cladding firms, who are essentially putting cost-savings and profits ahead of safety.
Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO)
David Gibson, former head of capital investment at KCTMO, admitted that prior to the end of the tender process he discussed with the chosen contractor, Rydon, how further cost reductions could be achieved to their original quote. He had received legal advice that such a conversation would be in breach of EU regulations that a contracting authority should not undertake negotiations with tenderers prior to the award of a contract.
Claire Williams, project manager at KCTMO, which managed Grenfell refurbishment, admitted that she destroyed records and notes regarding the project a year after the fire. She was fully aware that there was a public inquiry and police investigation when she destroyed the records.
The polyethylene cladding panels supplied for the building’s refurbishment by US construction company, Arconic, fuelled the fire. The cladding was highly flammable and ‘dangerously defective’, and unsuitable for high rise buildings. It was banned on American buildings over 40 ft tall. The development of a more fire resistant product was delayed because it was too expensive and the more suitable product was not approved until after the Grenfell refurbishment had been completed.
The choice of Arconic’s cladding represented a cost saving of less than £300,000. Arconic knew of the risks and said in its marketing material that the product should not be used on buildings over 40 ft tall, which should be fitted with ‘incombustible material’.
The cladding comprises thin sheets of aluminium with a polyethylene core (ACM), and melts at 130oC. The inquiry concluded in 2018 that the cladding was the main reason for the rapid spread of fire.
A former employee of Celotex has admitted his dishonesty when testing the Celotex combustible insulation used, a product known as RS5000. Former product manager, Jonathan Roper, said he had felt ‘incredibly uncomfortable’ about the work he was asked to do in order for the insulation to gain approval for use on high rise buildings.
Mr Roper said he was concerned in 2013 about the use of Celotex behind cladding in buildings over 18m. He says he suggested that Celotex was not suitable due to the fact that it would burn in the event of a fire. However, it was made clear to him that Celotex was determined to launch the insulation onto the market regardless of the results of fire.
The first safety test failed in January 2014. A second system passed in May 2014, but Celotex failed to disclose that it had added additional non-combustible elements to prevent this system from failing. For the second test, an additional 6mm fire-resisting magnesium oxide board was added to a cladding test rig made up of 12mm fibre cement panels. To ‘conceal’ this, 8mm fibre cement panels were added over the magnesium oxide. The addition made the system almost identical with the original, with the exception of a 2mm difference.
Mr Roper admitted that the decision to use a thinner layer was “to make it less noticeable there was something else behind it … to see off any prospect of anyone asking questions”. He also said that marketing literature had been amended to ensure there was no mention of the magnesium oxide.
Celotex said in its opening statement that: “certain issues” had arisen during its investigations of the fire, regarding the testing, certification and marketing of its products, and that staff had left the company following disciplinary processes.
Kingspan’s Kooltherm K15 insulation was used alongside Celotex RS5000 during the refurbishment. Fire testing took place in 2005 but the product specification was changed a year later. An employee said it was “tricky what to write” when asked by the façade engineer, Wintech, for clarity on the product’s suitability for buildings over 18 metres tall.
Philip Heath, now divisional business development director at Kingspan, said in an internal email that “Wintech can go f*** themselves, and if they are not careful we’ll sue the a**e off them”. In replying to a similar enquiry, Mr Heath wrote that the company was “getting me confused with someone who gives a damn”. He later wrote “I’m trying to think of a way out of this one, imagine a fire running up this tower!!!”
Mr Heath said his actions were “totally unprofessional” but arose from “frustration”. He said they did not reflect a culture within Kingspan “in terms of its response to these kinds of requests”.
Fire safety checks
In the wake of the Grenfell fire, owners of flats have become increasingly concerned over their safety as well as the value of their properties.
Hundreds of buildings are missing fire barriers or have unsafe cladding and their owners now face massive hikes in insurance and service charge costs, as well as funding ‘waking watch’ fire wardens. First seen as a temporary measure, the number of blocks employing fire wardens is still increasing, three years after Grenfell.
The government estimates that on average owners of flats pay £137 per month for a fire warden service, £256 in London. In London, 573 tower blocks now have a fire warden, some organised by volunteer residents but most paid between £14-£30 per hour. Although the cost of installing a fire alarm system might soon be recuperated, leaseholders are often required to have patrols by the National Fire Chiefs Council so that residents can quickly be evacuated.
One company, Façade Remedial Consultants, which inspects cladding on high rise buildings across England and Wales, estimated that 90% of the 2,000 buildings inspected had defective fire safety, although only 40% of their concerns related to cladding alone.