Latest on the Grenfell Inquiry from the FPA (Fire Protection Association)
#firesafety #inquiry #cladding #constructionindustry #architects #localauthorities
The inquiry heard that architects Studio E were ‘miffed’ at demands from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) building control to install extra fire prevention during the refurbishment.
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 ruling. After 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 pandemic. That 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’.
Last week, a senior fire engineer ‘did not raise the need for any proposed cladding system to have a separate fire safety assessment’, and another then shared that he was sent the design report for the cladding, but did not view it as ‘he was not specifically asked to’. Yesterday meanwhile, the two Exova consultants were said to have given ‘no thought’ to evacuating disabled residents because the law ‘didn’t require them to’.
The Guardian has now reported on emails disclosed during the inquiry’s hearings this week, which showed that Studio E architect Neil Crawford disagreed with RBKC’s senior building control surveyor John Hoban over including firestopping ‘to prevent flames spreading between floors for at least two hours’. with the aforementioned emails sent in March 2015 between Mr Hoban and Mr Crawford.
Mr Hoban insisted that the new wall structure ‘needed to include fire-stopping to prevent flames spreading between floors for at least two hours’, but Mr Crawford said this was ‘not needed’ and that cavity barriers ‘would suffice’. Mr Crawford’s email added that ‘the subject of fire barriers is raising a lot of concern on site not lease because of program and cost. We are all miffed as to why this detail is not a cavity barrier’.
In turn, one fire engineer ‘hoped’ building regulators ‘would not notice’ that evacuation arrangements ‘might not be compliant’ with regulations. Exova’s former senior consultant Tony Pearson told the inquiry that getting building regulations approval was a process of negotiation’, after it was revealed that one of the fire engineers had written to a colleague ‘let’s hope [the building control officer] doesn’t pick up on it’.
The news outlet pointed out that one example of this in the emails was where Exova had ‘submitted a justification for having only a single staircase to evacuate flats and other uses on the towers’ lower floors’ despite knowing that this was ‘debatable’. Mr Pearson said that this was a ‘first attempt at justification and if building control comes back and says we are not happy with it, then we will revisit it’.
He told the inquiry that RBKC’s building control department ‘had a bit of a reputation as hard to convince to accept anything non-standard’, and that he knew about the risk of ‘unseen rapid fire spread through facades if proper cavity barriers had not been fitted’. This had come from knowing about the Lakanal House fire and another in France that showed ‘several story’s could be involved’, and he knew that panels could fall off and aluminium panels melt.
Mr Pearson also told his manager Terry Ashton, in an email dated 31 March 2015, that ‘if significant flames are ejected from the windows, this would lead to failure of the cladding system, with the external surface falling away and exposing the cavity’.
I was part of the team that cladded the first Towerblock in the UK and the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th…….
I’ve had a sentence in my head since 1982 that applies to Towerblocks, “nothing that holds a flame should be in the window area or on the outside. So with that firmly imprinted in 2000 I found myself on the new Met Office project in Exeter. On opening the container of Insulation I said Flammable. So I mentioned this to the site manager who was infested with the class system so ignored me and walked off. Luckily in 2000 all construction was visited by Council Clerks and Fire officers in the first few weeks so I waited patiently. And by chance I saw the Fire Officer arrive as we where cladding the first wall. I beckoned him up onto the scaffolding and gave him a piece of insulation and a fag lighter. Ten minutes later the job was on stop as a Insulation change was ordered. All insulation that had been fitted was removed.
In 2000 training was privatised and I can see evidence of this in the enquiry. It worried me so much in 2002 that I emailed the government to warn them the system of specification had been corrupted. This resulted in the White paper of 2004 which I and others provided evidence for. But the cladding industry ignored it as the government hadn’t really done anything about my email, other than to say it was the worse thing they’d read and they hoped it wasn’t true. So I sent them a far worse one. Sadly both were true and they had the option right then to alter the system but they didn’t.
The enquiry has shown how corrupted the industry is. I look back to the projects we did in the eighties and remember well the size of the team involved and the Council Clerk of works and the Fire Officers that made sure it was safe and to specification along with the applicators and the system designer. After 2000 the Green Deal, Warmer Homes and the RHI have all been corrupted in the quest for profits.
Now when I ask tried and tested fully trained cladders if they are busy, they’ve all left the industry because of its corruption.
I see Plymouth are removing rainscreen from its blocks and I hope the rest get a move on.
One look at a cross section of the window detail early in the morning after the fire, before the sites removed the evidence, showed it was absolutely lethal, yet there it was and it was still burning. May the whole team hang their heads in shame for ever more.
Many thanks for your Comment Brian, lets hope the deaf ears are now open!
On the day of the fire, and having had first hand experience of the extent of Kensington and Chelsea’s TMO’s corruption and incompetence, I took a look at the Planning Application for the external work at the site. According to the K&C’s planning portal, where the refurbishment scheme (Planning ref PP/12/04097) could be viewed.
Celotex FR5000 – a polyisocyanurate foam – in either 50mm, 100mm or 150mm thickness, dependent on location, formed the primary insulation membrane, with a 50mm ventilated cavity between it and the rain-screen. There may also be further cavities between the insulation and the underlying concrete substrate as one television interviewee and the drawings suggest. The Rain Screen is described on the plans as being of a ZINC composite and not aluminium, but that may have changed within the Building Regulations Application which was nor available on line?
The building Regulations, as far as I am aware, demand that such vertical cavities in walls require a horizontal cavity barriers at intermediate floor levels but I could find no such reference in the documents available online although such may well be, again, addressed in the plans submitted for Building Regulation Purposes as may well other mitigating details not shown on the planning drawings..
The “FR” added to The Celotex specification number denotes “Fire Resistant” although not fireproof but has not, in my experience as a Surveyor of over 50 years, ever been recorded as being connected with such a conflagration. It is highly regarded throughout the Industry as a safe but expensive product.. But there are other manufactures who make similar and cheaper materials that may have been substituted to save money.
So just when was the specification changed from ZINC (Non Flammable) to Aluminium (Highly Flammable at certain temperatures) and who was responsible for the change?
I would also like to question the cause of the fire. It has been suggested that the cause was an internal fire in a kitchen. If one examines the video of the conflagration in its early stages and looking at the published pictures of the exterior of the tower there seems to be a small spot at a low level – below window cill level – which may be likely to indicate the source of the fire? Given that the structure at that point is one of the projecting RC columns the likelihood of the source being from within the building is small and one must wonder if arson has been considered as a possible reason? The location suggests someone leaning out of an adjacent window with a blow torch! My experience of internal fires is that they leave the flat through a window at high level – Not below window cill level!
One also has to consider the hue and cry of a pressure group who, on the day of the fire, castigated the Council saying that they had warned them for some time that such an incident was likely to happen. What happened to that pressure group, nothing was ever heard of then again? Was Grenfell the fist high rise block to go up in flames in such a manner or were there others before it. If there were I don’t remember one ever being reported in the media.
So how to resolve the likelihood of it happening again without resorting to re-cladding.
Why is it not obvious that the solution to the vertical spread of flame in a high rise blocks is to protect the window openings from the passage of fire.?
This could easily be achieved by banning the use of curtains or other loose flappable systems and making it obligatory to use vertical blinds using an intumescent impregnated material designed to close or drop automatically if and when initiated by fire. They should be designed to be set within the window’s reveals or wall faces. Inward opening windows should be avoided where it may impinge on the operation of the blind or have their opening restricted for the same reason.
Alternatively an automatic fire curtain with a drop of about 1 Metre could be fitted across the entire width of the wall containing the window, again set to operate by flame sensors or the Flat’s or even the block’s fire detection system, to act as a barrier to the tendency for flames to exit out of the upper sections of the window openings although that would have little effect on flames entering the lower half.
Ingenuity should be employed to solve a problem that is unlikely to ever happen again unless where deliberately started.
Thank you for your interesting comment Philip