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Grenfell Inquiry: Cladding company knew materials were unsafe

Grenfell©londonmetropolitanpolice
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The company that made the cladding on the Grenfell Tower knew six years before the fire that the materials were unsafe, the public inquiry has heard

The disclosure came in the opening statement given by main contractor Rydon, whose 2016 refurbishment of the west London building is being considered as part of phase two of the inquiry.

Rydon’s lawyer Marcus Taverner QC focused on manufacturer Celotex which supplied its RS 5000 insulation product and Arconic which supplied Reynobond PE, the aluminium panels with a polyethylene core that were formed into cassettes to make up the cladding.

According to the AJ’s sister title Construction News, the revelation that drew gasps from those watching the hearing at the inquiry, Taverner read out an Arconic internal email from 2011 that discussed how their products might not be safe for high-rise buildings.

The message, sent by Arconic employee Claude Wharle, suggested the company could still sell the product if it targeted countries with low regulatory standards. The email read: ’For the moment, even if we know that PE material in cassette has a bad behaviour when exposed to fire, we can still work with national regulations who (sic) are not as restrictive.’

By March 2015 when the first purchase order was sent to Arconic, its Reynobond PE cassettes had been downgraded to Euroclass E fire rating, far below the class B level suitable for high-rise building.

Rydon’s QC went on to add that there were further internal emails at Arconic that said Reynobond PE was dangerous. In the context of the product conforming to French national standard, Taverner said Wharle wrote in June 2015, while the Grenfell Tower was being refurbished: ’[In] my opinion, PE is dangerous on facades and everything should be transferred to FR [a different product] as a matter of urgency.

’The NFP92 [French] standard, which could be interpreted as allowing its use, should have been discontinued over ten years ago.’

By December 2016, after the tower’s refurbishment was completed and six months before the catastrophic fire, marketing material for Reynobond PE said the material was only suitable for buildings up to 10 metres in height.

[In] my opinion, PE is dangerous on facades and everything should be transferred to FR [a different product] as a matter of urgency.

Taverner also revealed that insulation manufacturer Celotex had only managed to get the necessary fire certification for its product by submitting a highly specific sample to the BRE for testing.

Taverner referred to emails between employees at Celotex discussing how to get the BR135 certification for FR 5000, later marketed as RS 5000, as evidence. He said: ’A Celotex internal email dated 1 November 2013 […] was written during attempts to obtain BR135 certification and it referred to the difficulties. This is Celotex, ‘We cannot seem to find or design a suitable barrier in which we have enough confidence that it can be used behind a standard ACM panel in brackets, ‘which we know will melt and allow fire into the cavity’.”

Taverner continued: ’After going on to discuss the options for setting up BR135 tests, the email concluded, ’Or do we take the view that our product realistically shouldn’t be used behind most cladding panels because in the event of a fire it would burn?’’

Celotex went on to submit a system for certification and failed in its first attempt to become BR135-certified, but succeeded at the second attempt.

Taverner claimed they achieved this by submitting a system that was not typically used in construction projects, particularly with its inclusion of a non-combustible magnesium oxide reinforcement board. The BRE report did not mention the use of the board in its certification report.

The arguments set out by Rydon’s QC which claimed the manufacturers had provided ’misleading’ information were echoed by Jonathan Laidlaw QC, the representative for cladding subcontractor Harley Facades, who gave evidence after him.

Laidlaw added that Harley, as a relatively small company with limited resources, had little choice but to accept the claims made by manufacturers.

He said: ’A company of Harley’s size is bound to accept such claims, and accept the efficacy of the testing of the products as they are reported by the manufacturers.’

The inquiry continues.

Reynobond’s rating

In January 2008, Reynobond PE received a British Board of Agrément certificate that gave the product a class 0 surface rating in relation to fire.

It was given this based, in part at least according to Rydon QC Marcus Taverner, on a Euroclass B certification it received after being tested in the EU. A class 0 rating means the material can resist the spread of fire over the external walls of a high-rise building.

Arconic needed the BBA certificate in order to let it sell Reynobond PE in the UK and the one issued in 2008 was the only one ever issued on the product.

During pre-construction in April 2014, cladding sub-contractor Harley was sent a copy of the 2008 BBA certificate by Arconic. Taverner told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that the certificate misrepresented the suitability of the product at that time as there was no Euroclass B rating for Reynobond PE as used on the tower. By December 2014, shortly after works began, the product had been downgraded to a Euroclass E rating.

’The certificate was at this stage misleading,’ Taverner said, adding “Arconic did not notify the BBA [of Reynobond’s downgrade], it [the certificate] was not altered.’

The inquiry continues tomorrow.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • One outcome of this inquiry should surely be an easily accessible, really comprehensive and continuously updated database on all testing and certification (worldwide) of all building elements used in the UK - for any particular material, component or manufactured (as opposed to custom-made) assembly.
    And custom-made elements should surely have to be clearly regulated in terms of the need for testing and certification where appropriate and necessary.

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