The opening few days of the Grenfell Inquiry’s second phase, looking at the causes of the 2017 disaster, have thrown up an unexpected wealth of new information – not least about Studio E Architects’ role
The revelations have not painted a positive picture of any of the key players involved in the refurbishment of the west London tower, destroyed in the fire that claimed 72 lives. However, Studio E, which said it could only afford legal representation for the opening statements, looks like it will remain under the spotlight.
Here are the key things we learned this week:
Buck-passing – everyone shuns responsibility
In his highly critical opening statement, before any of the core participants had even given oral evidence, inquiry barrister Richard Millett was damning of all the main parties involved in the tower’s revamp, including Studio E, saying that their written statements ‘buck-passed’ on any form of responsibility.
He said the pre-inquiry documents offered neither admissions nor acceptance of responsibility – even though it was ‘unlikely’ the building could have failed to meet Building Regulations without someone being at fault.
‘[With] the exception of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, not any single core participant involved in the primary refurbishment of Grenfell Tower has felt able to make any unqualified admission against its own interests,’ said Millett.
‘With that solitary exception, one finds in these detailed and carefully crafted statements no trace of any acceptance of any responsibility for what happened at Grenfell Tower. Not from the architects, the contract managers, the main contractors, the specialist cladding subcontractors, the fire safety engineers, or the TMO [tenants management organisation].’
However, as the inquiry progressed, there was no shortage of finger-pointing at others.
Who was part of the ‘design team’ remains a key issue
As design-and-build contractor, Rydon became – in the words of the client, the Kensington and Chelsea tenants management organisation [TMO] – ‘responsible for ensuring that the design was in compliance with all necessary legislation, codes of practice, best practice and the like’.
However, it is not that clear cut. For instance, Rydon said it was relying on the expertise of Studio E - after they were novated from the TMO - to ensure all designs met regulations.
In fact, Rydon claims to have delegated numerous design responsibilities to others and says that some decisions had been made before its appointment.
In its evidence, it also says that Studio E, the specialist cladding subcontractor Harley, fire specialist Exova, the council’s building control and the TMO were ‘all involved in the drawing up of the NBS specification or consulted about it’. Rydon adds that it was ‘not informed by anyone at any stage that using [the combustible cladding] Reynobond PE or [the flammable insulation] Celotex ‘posed a risk to the health and safety of the occupants of Grenfell Tower’.
Meanwhile, manufacturers Celotex and Arconic both distanced themselves from having any design input. As did the local authority, which said ‘there was a fundamental conceptual distinction between a person who creates a design and a person who checks it’. However, it admitted its building control had failed and that a completion certificate should not have been issued in July 2016.
Typical of all the core participants’ repeated attempts to minimise their roles and responsibilities was Artelia, the employer’s agent, quantity surveyor and one-time CDM co-ordinator. It insisted that Studio E Architects ‘was the lead consultant’ on the Grenfell tower refurb and not it.
This allegation was contrary to claims by the architect. Studio E’s opening statement to the Grenfell Inquiry earlier this week stated that Artelia had ‘confirmed’ it would take on the key role.
The chaotic situation is summed up in an opening statement from a survivors’ group: ‘We suggest that it is beyond peradventure that there was a lack of co-ordination between the parties involved in the refurbishment, all the way through from the design to the construction stage.’
Who knew what about the cladding?
Studio E said it did not have any knowledge at the time that the products used on the tower were unsafe – and that it could not reasonably have been expected to know the products were unsafe. But this appears to be contradicted by evidence from Celotex which includes emails purporting to show they had some awareness about the cladding risk – although this inference has been challenged.
There's no evidence they knew of or even suspected the combustibility dangers of the cladding. In fact it seems Exova still thought it was zinc which has a low melting point. Sadly, it didn't melt and fall off as they predicted.— Dr Jonathan Evans FIMechE (@Jonatha135113) January 28, 2020
Celotex, which admitted producing incorrect marketing material about the product, adds that when the decision was made in 2014 to switch from zinc to the ACM system, a ‘major investigation’ of the ACM material should have been undertaken by the designers, contractors and consultants, but never was.
Other parties have also tried to deny knowledge of the cladding’s combustibility or say it was not their responsibility.
What has also emerged is that, as part of a ‘value engineering exercise’ prompted by Artelia on behalf of the TMO, it seems it was Studio E who put forward the switch from zinc cladding panels to the cheaper and less fire-resistant aluminium composite material (ACM).
This week a survivors’ group pointed the finger at Bruce Sounes of Studio E for suggesting the cladding material change stating ’what this essentially meant was cost-cutting, so that materials which should have been identified by Studio E as being unsafe and unsuitable to be used on the tower, were not’.
Yet evidence from the TMO says that statements, given by façade specialist Harley and Studio E, reveal that Harley first suggested the use of ACM to Studio E and that the architect relied on the advice of Harley for the cladding.
Will the truth ever be known?
Whether this maelstrom of conflicting accounts will eventually be unpicked depends on whether the individual witnesses agree to speak.
Studio E Architects surprised everyone when it and others asked for immunity from prosecution relating to evidence given at the inquiry. Unless it was guaranteed that what they said could not be used against them in other legal proceedings, lawyers warned it was likely witnesses would rely on their privilege against self-incrimination and simply refuse to answer questions.
Inquiry chairman Martin Moore-Bick was forced to pause the inquiry following the application, made by the counsel for a number of witnesses, including the architects, façade installer Harley, certain employees or ex-employees of Rydon, and the tenant management organisation.
The application requires Moore-Bick to request an undertaking from the attorney general.
Speaking for the families, QC Michael Mansfield branded the move ‘highly questionable’. ‘The timing of this application by certain corporates with regards to whether they will answer certain questions or have immunity is highly reprehensible,’ he said.
‘[It] comes on the eve of evidence, yet there has been plenty of time for this to have been considered as it does normally in inquiries and inquests. We have a major question over why it has been done today. It has caused immense anxiety, distress and anger … as it were to be almost thwarted at the doors of the court.’
A decision on immunity is expected next week.