Studio E Architects’ co-founder has been challenged at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry over whether the practice had the right amount of experience to lead the design of the high-rise’s refurbishment
Andrzej Kuszell, one of the practice’s three original founding directors, admitted yesterday (March 2) that the London-based practice had no experience in overcladding or refurbishing a high-rise block, nor on high-rise residential projects in general.
However, Kuszell, 70, insisted it was ‘false’ to say the lack of tower refurbishment projects in its portfolio meant the practice was not capable of delivering the project successfully.
He said: ‘There was a time when every project that we did was a new project. So there was our first extension to a school, our first small sports facility, and we did all our projects to a very high standard even though they were the first, actually receiving huge accolades and a lot of recognition’.
Kuszell’s evidence was briefly interrupted after protesters began heckling the inquiry chair, Martin Moore-Bick, calling the probe a ‘cover-up’ and criticising the attorney general’s recent decision that evidence given by witnesses would not be used in criminal prosecutions against them.
Studio E’s inexperience in the sector has become a focal point in the inquiry. Previously, inquiry lawyers used an email sent by practice associate Bruce Sounes, saying there was a need for ‘rapid CPD’ on Grenfell, as an example of how it was the ’wrong architect’ for the job.
But, in his evidence, Kuszell said Sounes’s email merely showed a recognition there was a need for some project-specific research on the project. ‘There was no reason to doubt we couldn’t do it,’ he said.
Richard Millet QC (counsel to the inquiry): Had Studio E ever, before Grenfell Tower, undertaken a project involving overcladding a high-rise tower?
Andrzej Kuszell: No
Did Studio E have any experience of high rise residential projects at all?
No, it didn’t
What about refurbishment of tower blocks?
Richard Millett QC also grilled Kuszell over the qualifications of the employees he assigned to the Grenfell job.
He asked why Studio E employee Neil Crawford, a former Fosters associate who joined the tower project in 2014, had an oversight role on the project if he hadn’t finished his RIBA Part 3 and therefore was not a qualified architect.
Kuszell said: ‘First, he had experience of high-rise buildings with his previous practice [Foster + Partners]. Second, he knew the context of the project, having worked on the Aldridge Academy. And he was becoming available.’
But when asked if he and Sounes had investigated what experience Crawford had in overcladding existing high-rise buildings, Kuszell said: ‘I don’t think he had experience of overcladding an existing building. But he definitely had high-rise design experience.’
In the second phase of the inquiry, the architect has also come under criticism for focusing on the appearance of the tower. Millett asked Kuszell how the practice saw Grenfell Tower in comparison with the Kensington Academy and Leisure Centre (KALC, also for the London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea) project it worked on first, asking whether the tower was seen as an ‘eyesore’, or a problem to be fixed.
Kuszell denied this was the case, adding that, while the tower presented a number of design problems such as overlooking, noise generated by the school, and complex issues of land boundaries, these were seen as ’constraints’ of the site.
In a tense exchange, Millett pushed Kuszell on why Sounes had described it as a ‘poor relative’ of the KALC project and asked whether that meant Grenfell ‘wasn’t much of a win?’.
Kuszell replied he thought Sounes was merely referring to the budget, adding: ’Our ambition was to actually do the best possible job on the tower.’
The architect was also challenged over the practice’s appointment to the job.
Previously, a lawyer representing a group of survivors and the bereaved had accused the Grenfell Tower Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) – effectively the refurbishment client – of ‘circumventing public procurement legislation’ by capping their fees below the thresholds which would have triggered a competitive procurement process.
Asked if he thought the TMO was seeking to avoid a competitive procurement, Kuszell said he thought it was ‘a method to permit them to appoint not just us but others as well, to carry out the work being novated to the contractor’.
And, asked whether he accepted that, had there been a competitive procurement process for the work, it was unlikely Studio E would have won, Kuszell replied: ‘Knowing the way procurement works, I think you’re right.’
Kuszell repeatedly told the inquiry that, as founder, he did not have responsibility for the day-to-day running of Grenfell Tower, a role assigned to Sounes.
He was later asked whether a technical review of the Grenfell Tower proposals to check whether the designs complied with the Building Regulations had been carried out at the tender stage in 2014. Kusznell replied: ‘A technical review, in the sense you are asking, was not carried out at that stage; it was carried out later.’
The lawyer for the inquiry pointed to evidence that showed that a full technical review by Studio E had not occurred until 28 October 2015, explaining this had been produced while the external façade works were already 60 per cent built and a year after the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding panels had been specified.
Asked how closely he ‘as a senior person’ at the practice had interrogated the 2015 review document, assessed by Sounes, which stated that fire detailing had been completed, Kuszell said: ‘I would have scanned the documents, yes, [and] taken from it there were no issues outstanding on the fire front. In hindsight, now I would have looked at it much more carefully.
‘But at the time there was every reason to believe that nothing untoward had been discovered.’
Grilled on whether it was ‘normal’ for a technical review to take place when an ‘important element of the project’ was already substantially complete, Kuszell replied: ‘What is important is at what point had the project been developed to the point where you’d be reviewing the final technical equation.’
Asked whether Studio E Architects should have carried out more technical reviews throughout the process, Kuszell replied: ‘When you get a project which gets its full resolution in such a graded way, it is a fine judgement when you call a technical review.
‘In hindsight, you could argue that [such a] review could have been held at the tender stage, but it would have been in the knowledge that you would have had to do a further technical review, because a lot would change and some areas not be fully resolved.’
The inquiry continues today.