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Grenfell Inquiry: Architect had not checked fire-safety guidance for high rises

Grenfell forever in our hearts
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The lead architect behind the Grenfell Tower refurbishment has admitted he had not read the relevant sections of the Building Regulations covering fire safety for tall buildings

Speaking at the inquiry into the 2017 disaster yesterday (3 March), Studio E associate and project lead Bruce Sounes said he was largely unaware there was specific guidance in Approved Document B for buildings taller than 18m and did not know that aluminium panels could melt.

He also said he was only partially familiar with section B4 (1) on external fire spread, admitted that he had not read it during his time on the project nor did he know the route to compliance for the external envelope.

And he admitted he had not read the section on cavity barriers while working on the refurbishment, nor section B4 (12.7) on the limited combustibility of insulation.

When probed by inquiry lawyer Kate Grange on earlier cladding-related fires, Sounes also said he knew little or nothing about incidents in Dubai and Lakanal House in Southwark which claimed six lives in 2009.

Asked what steps Sounes had taken at the outset of the project to familiarise himself with Approved Document B, he said: ‘We knew it would not be possible to form an opinion on compliance of the provisions without a [fire] consultant.

‘Although the team and myself have certainly worked with the approved documents, I did not expect to use them necessarily on Grenfell.’

When questioned on whether he had actually read the document at all at the time of the Grenfell project he added: ‘I referred to it on occasion but I certainly did not read it from start to finish.’

In his evidence, Sounes claimed, on numerous occasions, that some design responsibilities should have fallen on design-and-build contractor Rydon and other specialists.

However the lawyer for the inquiry pointed to the deed of appointment that Studio E had signed with Rydon, which she claimed spelt out the architect’s duties.

Although one clause had been amended on Studio E’s request – from to ‘obtain building regulation approval on behalf of the contractor’ to having ‘responsibility for co-ordinating building control submissions’ – others remained untouched.

These included: ‘seek to ensure that all designs comply with the statutory requirements’  and ’with other consultants, where appointed, develop the scheme designs, agree with the contractor the type of construction and quality selection of materials’.

Cladding ‘straightforward’

Earlier in the day, Sounes was referred to his witness statement which said that ‘the building regulations are not straightforward to interpret’ and this was a complex project.

However he had told the inquiry it was primarily complex because of the issues of significantly altering ’the existing building with [its] single means of escape’ while the residents were still inside. Asked if the early appreciation of this complexity meant the practice should have hired in additional expertise, Sounes replied: ‘I would argue that’s what the consultants were.’

He added that he did not think the overcladding of the building envelope – in terms of design, specification and regulatory compliance – was the most complicated aspect of the project.

That aspect, he said, was the reworking of the podium. According to Sounes, the rainscreen cladding was ‘quite straightforward’. The architect said the biggest risk the practice identified with the cladding was with ‘its weight’.   

In terms of who was the lead consultant, Sounes stated that client’s agent Artelia, because of its actions, had acted in the role. However the lawyer for the inquiry pointed to Studio E’s own documents which stated that the architect itself had taken on those duties. 

Sounes acknowledged he had ‘ticked the box’ for that role in a service agreement from 2012 and later admitted that Studio E had carried out duties akin to a lead consultant.

Procurement 

A lawyer for the survivors had previously claimed the tenant management organisation (TMO) had breached OJEU procedures in the appointment of Studio E – an issue that re-emerged in yesterday’s hearing.

The inquiry heard how Studio E Architects had deliberately deferred a chunk of its fees on the Grenfell Tower project to avoid triggering an open public tender for design services.

Sounes said he had agreed to split its fees on the project so that the stages A-D would be under the £174,000 OJEU procurement threshold.

The practice admitted earlier this week that, having no experience in overcladding or refurbishing a high-rise block, it was unlikely Studio E would have won any competitive procurement process for the scheme.

Instead, the studio landed the Grenfell tower project for Kensington and Chelsea TMO on the back of its work for the local council on the linked Kensington Academy and Leisure Centre.

Sounes was repeatedly asked about the fee the practice charged on the job – a total figure that, over stages, was revealed to be £323,000 or 4.75 per cent of the scheme’s budget. 

The inquiry was shown a meeting note written by Sounes from July 2012 which said: ’TMO would like … the total fee up until stage D not exceeding £174,000 which is the OJEU threshold for requiring work to be tendered. This will probably mean deferring some fees.’

An email from Sounes to the TMO’s director of assets and regeneration Mark Anderson confirmed this. Sounes wrote: ‘A 50 per cent deferment of all stage D fees to keep the total stage D fee below £174,000.’

Sounes said in his written statement to the inquiry (see attached): ’I understood that this limit was the maximum contract value permissible under EU procurement regulations, above which the [TMO] would have to follow a compliant procurement process in selecting consultants.

’Such a process might involve advertising and tendering the opportunity publicly or using consultants from an approved framework list. [I] believed the overall fee to deliver the project would be higher than the OJEU threshold, and Studio E may not be able to qualify in a bid process.’

An early stage-by-stage breakdown prepared by Sounes showed that the practice was planning to bill for £161,000 up to stage E.

However it later emerged that the scheme’s budget had gone up, meaning on a percentage basis Studio E’s fee for work its early-stage work had also risen (to £190,000) and over the OJEU threshold.

In the context of the rising budget inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick, asked Sounes: ‘Did you ever suggest to the TMO that because of the level of fees it ought to go out to tender?’

Sounes said: ’I’m afraid I don’t have the insight on the OJEU rules to take a view on what ought to have happened.’ 

He also remarked: ‘Your first question was whether I had manipulated [fee payments] to come under the OJEU threshold, and my response is that those fee allocations per stage , the 5 per cent, 10 per cent, 20 per cent, to me look fairly typical.’

It emerged that Studio E was effectively working for free and at risk towards the end of 2012 to early 2013 having billed all its invoices to the £174,000 ‘OJEU threshold’ by October. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It's very unfortunate for this team member that he was ill-prepared and unable to handle the major technical issues relating to the design and didn't research the Building Regs thoroughly. In reality the directors of Studio E carry vicarious liability for the actions of their staff however well or poorly qualified and experienced those staff may be. What were the reporting procedures in place and were the directors actually involved in the day to day control and coordination of the design process. Mr Sounes should not have been such a grilling, it should have been the director(s) responsible. It is also clear to see why Studio E requested immunity from prosecution for the evidence that is emerging. All in all the actions of Studio E constituted mind-numbing incompetence and negligence whatever their brief within the design process.

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