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Grenfell Inquiry: Studio E defends its role on tower block refurbishment

Grenfell anthony coleman

Studio E Architects has broken its silence on its role in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and told the public inquiry into the disaster that the regulatory system was to blame

The London-based practice set out its position on the opening day (27 January) of the inquiry’s second phase, which will consider how the high-rise block came to be wrapped in flammable cladding.

The lead counsel to the inquiry had begun proceedings by accusing the architects, contractor and subcontractors of dodging all blame for the fire, which killed 72 people in June 2017. 

In its evidence, Studio E – represented by lawyer Prashant Popat – argued that building regulations had permitted the ’‘routine use’ of unsafe cladding on buildings ‘for many years’.

Popat added that the architect did not know the products used on the tower were unsafe and there was ‘no information available to it, or, as it understands, to other architects and designers which would have reasonably alerted it to any lack of safety’.

He said that manufacturers’ materials and testing data had misled designers to consider that their products were safe, but insisted that Studio E’s position was ‘not an attempt to pass the buck’.

As for who was responsible for the cladding, Studio E’s opening statement said that the main contractor, Rydon, had delegated design responsibility for the cladding façade to subcontractor Harley Facades.

‘Studio E, therefore, considers that Rydon was responsible for approving Harley’s designs.’

Rydon, which also gave its opening statement today, set out how under the design-and-build contract it had delegated responsibilities to subcontractors including Studio E and Harley Facades.

The contractor went on to make potentially damaging allegations about cladding manufacturer Arconic, claiming that the company knew in 2011 that the products were ‘not suitable for use on building façades’. 

In its opening statement, Studio E was also heavily critical of a report produced by the inquiry’s architectural expert witness and former RIBA president Paul Hyett.

Studio E said the 575-page report which was released to core participants in October last year but has not yet been made public, is ‘materially wrong’ and ‘technically or factually inaccurate in key regards’.

According to the practice, one of Hyett’s ‘fundamental flaws’ is that he failed to apply the standard of a ‘reasonably competent architect’s practice’ when assessing Studio E’s actions, and instead ‘substituted his own standard’. 

Other issues include his treatment of whether or not the cladding complied with building regulations, which Studio E claims only focuses on the ‘linear’ route and not the other ways it could have met regulations. 

The practice also questioned Hyett’s qualifications for the role, asking whether he or his firm HKS has been involved in a design-and-build project that included the refurbishment of a high-rise or the recladding of an existing façade. 

Studio E opened its statement to the packed inquiry in Paddington by saying it wanted to record its ‘deep and profound sorrow for the tragedy that befell the occupants of Grenfell Tower’ and said those who worked on the refurb would be haunted by the disaster.

It described itself as a ‘conscientious, ethical and responsible’ architectural practice with a close-knit group of nine staff and said it had not appeared before the inquiry before today because of ‘financial constraints’.

The practice, and the other firms involved in the refurb, have faced criticism in the past for their silence but the architect said while this criticism was understandable ‘nothing could be further from the truth’.

Popat said: ‘It wants to engage; it doesn’t want to give the impression to anyone, least of all bereaved and survivors, that it is hiding away and doesn’t want to help.’

The inquiry will continue tomorrow (28 January) with opening statements from fire engineers Exova, cladding manufacturers Arconic, Celotex and other companies.

The inquiry panel remains a member short following the resignation at the weekend of engineer Benita Mehra, who stepped down following revelations about her links to the manufacturer of the tower’s cladding.

It remains unclear who will replace Mehra – herself a replacement for the architect Nabeel Hamdi, who left the panel last year.

Studio E Architects’ position

  • The relevant regulatory system was ‘not fit for purpose’, and had permitted the routine use of unsafe cladding materials buildings for many years
  • Manufacturers produced materials and testing data which had the effect of misleading designers to consider that their products were safe
  • Studio E did not have any knowledge at the time of the project that the products used on the tower were unsafe, and it could not reasonably have been expected to know that they were not safe
  • Studio E performed all its services with reasonable skill and care and considers that the significant volume of tall buildings with materially similar external surfaces is of critical importance in this regard
  • The Hyett Report is wrong in that:
    a) it does not adopt the standard of reasonable skill and care;
    b) ignores the input Studio E sought from specialists and consultants; and
    c) ignores, or fails to appreciate, the relevance of the fact that the cladding was designed by Rydon’s subcontractor Harley, which was understood to have assumed responsibility for all aspects of the design of that item.  

Readers' comments (3)

  • Industry Professional

    I have some sympathy with many of the points made by Studio E. Fundamentally, if there are so many buildings with the same cladding then there has been a widespread problem and not one just associated with the project team for the tragic Grenfell.
    It is depressing that parties seem to be arguing about who designed and detailed the cladding. This is a reflection of how responsibility can often be spread around and fragmented. To an outsider, the construction industry would appear dysfunctional and incompetent.
    I presume that Studio E's problem with My Hyett's report is that he may have allegedly taken a view that is led perhaps too much by hindsight rather than normal commercial decisions. I have not seen the report so do not know.
    It will be depressingly revealing to see what else transpires as the days progress.
    Jeffrey (an engineer) - comments made via IHS

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  • Who approved the flammable cladding as safe for use in the built environment, tested the material in question and recommended no change to the regulatory framework that allowed this unsafe status quo? Surely it is time for BRE’s former chief executive (Peter Bonfield OBE) to take the stand?

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  • RETIRED ARCHITECT- early in my career a local Glasgow Station fire officer advised us that in any fire, get everyone out of the building and let the fire officers take over and show the ratepayers what they got for their money.. If only Grenfell officers had adopted that technique.

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