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Grenfell Inquiry: Studio E associate says government knew of cladding fire risks

Grenfell tower
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Studio E Associate Neil Crawford has hit out at the government for failing to amend the ‘unfit’ Building Regulations despite knowing of the dangers years before the Grenfell disaster  

Crawford, who managed the refurbishment project from July 2014, made the claims in an emotional closing statement after spending three days on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry witness stand.

He said: ‘Clearly the risks of building to the regulations at the time [that Grenfell Tower was overclad] were known – they were known by government.

‘If you look at [the Environment, Transport & Regional Affairs] select committee information from early as 1999, you can see that the warnings were there about the risk of fire and combustible materials on buildings. Why wasn’t it acted on? It was in Scotland.’

He added: ‘The reality is the building regs [were] not fit for purpose and have led to the regularised usage of dangerous and flammable materials. Unfortunately, the industry only reacts to the regulations in place; therefore you need to have regulations … that are fit for purpose.’

Asked whether he would have done anything differently, Crawford said he wished he’d designed the building in line with the amended 2018 building regulations, which now prohibit the use of combustible materials anywhere in the external walls of high-rise buildings.

He said that the opaque, multi-track regulatory system, which allowed several compliance routes for products and included the outdated UK national Class 0 sitting alongside other European fire classifications, had been a key factor in the blaze.

Crawford said: ‘If you just had A2 [non-combustible materials] as you do now, then you wouldn’t have had the situation where you could have put that panel on the building.’

His attack on the regulations came after a day of being grilled over cavity barriers in the cladding system, his relationship with the council’s building control team, and whether he had been satisfied over the compliance of the materials used.

Crawford was challenged over the lack of vertical cavity barriers in the aluminium crown or ‘on top of’ the exterior cladding directly below it. The report from the first phase of the inquiry found that the ‘purely decorative’ architectural crown had contributed to the spread of fire around the west London tower that claimed the lives of 72 people in June 2017.

The inquiry lawyer, Richard Millett, asked Crawford why the plans for the exterior cladding did not comply with diagram 33 from Part B of the Building Regulations in force at the time.

Diagram 33 part b closing top of cladding

Diagram 33 part b closing top of cladding

Crawford replied that the diagram was only guidance and that he didn’t think the diagram applied to the Grenfell situation, because it showed a standard house type with further enclosed space above it, unlike the tower configuration, which ‘opened up to the atmosphere’.

Millett also pointed out that Studio E’s original drawings had shown a barrier in that position but that Harley Facades’ later drawings had not. He asked: ’[Would] you agree that this Harley design represents a worsening in terms of compliance with the guidance in Approved Document B, diagram 33?’

Crawford replied that he did not necessarily think it did, adding that he had not ‘disagreed’ with Harley’s managing director Ray Bailey’s justification for its omission: ’[The] primary purpose of the cavity barrier is to protect the compartment, and there is no compartment above it, and there is effectively no chimney effect, because you’re only travelling the distance of one apartment.’

He was also asked about the window details and drawings by Harley and the materials mentioned in them – drawings that Studio E had seen and stamped as meeting the architect’s design intent.

The inquiry lawyer said: ‘How could a drawing or a specification be signed off as complying with design intent or architectural intent, if you like, if in fact it did not comply with statutory requirements?’

He went on: ’[For instance] if you didn’ t know whether or not a fire-retardant had been added to the Styrofoam, wouldn’t it be a manifest error to any architect who sees Styrofoam sitting there in this spec for use in the external wall construction as it was?’

Crawford replied: ‘Not if you believed it was the responsibility of the subcontractor to ensure that it was compliant, then you would assume that they had exercised that duty.’

 The inquiry continues.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • The Conservative government privatised the Building Research Establishment so that they had to tout for business rather than perform their role in setting building standards - that is the origin of this sad affair.

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  • Richard is indeed correct...BRE was privatised on 17 March 1997 and several hundred staff were advised to sign a new contract, (or face a three year pay-freeze and no future promotion) taking them into the private sector with an MBO. Labour did not reverse this decision when they came into power the next day.

    Selling research to the construction industry is no easy business and it is doubtful that BRE was an appropriate candidate for such privatisation (with hindsight it was in fact a tragic decision). But the Tory government managed to get yet another branch of the civil service off their books, which they had been trying to do for some time. BRE was threatened with privatisation by Heseltine in 1982.

    All the evidence suggests that the UK government largely abandoned the funding of stable public-sector building research some decades ago. But BRE were engaged by the government to conduct research and tests into the fire safety of cladding panels to buildings, a year before the Grenfell Tower Fire. The first part of BRE’s report stated, with eerie prescience, that ‘Fires involving the exterior of a building, in partcular high-rise flats are visually impressive, high- profile and attract media attention.’

    ‘Fire resistance tests subject a test specimen to a fire exposure that is similar to a fully flashed-over compartment fire. Such an exposure is appropriate for interior elements of a building and load bearing elements. However, it is not evident that such exposure conditions are appropriate for the exterior of a building.’

    'BRE Global, through the contract with DCLG, investigate fires that may have implications for Building Regulations. With the exception of one or two unfortunate but rare cases, there is currently no evidence from these investigations to suggest that the current recommendations, to limit vertical fire spread up the exterior of high-rise buildings, are failing in their purpose.’

    Part 2 of the BRE report concluded:
    ‘Overall, the findings from this research show that there is a clear and demonstrable need to ensure that buildings are designed and constructed so that the fire spread across the external surface and within the external façade is inhibited, as required by the Building Regulations. There is adequate guidance available in the public domain to allow this to be achieved.’

    BRE’s initial report was entitled ‘External fire spread: Part 1 Background research’ and is dated April 2016. This was followed by Part 2, which looked at experimental research. The two parts of the report were available to download from BRE’s website. The report was part of a contract with DCLG that was meant to run until 2018.

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