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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: what we’ve learned so far

Shutterstock grenfell

With the inquiry’s second phase set to resume next week, Richard Waite and Ella Jessel look at how its few first days offered a devastating insight into the chaotic mess behind the tower’s refurbishment

In its first week, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s second phase has already delivered a far-reaching message: the construction industry is broken.

So broken that, in west London nearly three years ago, it cost the lives of 72 people and profoundly affected many more.

Following the inquiry’s first phase, which examined the events of the night, the latest stage moves to the causes of the 2017 fire, and has already thrown up a wealth of new information – not least about the role of Studio E Architects.

In among the statements and witness evidence is the truth so desperately sought by the bereaved and those who survived the tragedy. But uncovering it will be no easy task. Although detailed, the opening submissions from the web of contractors, subcontractors and specialists were essentially a series of cut-and-paste ‘we’re sorry, but it really had nothing to do with us’ responses.

In fact, the evidence given by the core corporate participants painted a picture of a fragmented, cost-obsessed industry whose prime aim is to sidestep blame. It was an unedifying and sobering spectacle.

As the inquiry’s own lawyer, a clearly exasperated Richard Millett, put it in his opening address: ‘What happened was, as each of them would have it, someone else’s fault.’ 

Representing one group of survivors and bereaved, lawyer Balvinder Gill phrased it differently. ‘Each of these corporate core participants has blood on its hands,’ she told the inquiry, ‘and it cannot be washed off by the blood of another.’

Central government had much to answer for, in failing to overhaul the Building Regulations 

In an emotive speech she claimed there had been at least ‘15 key missed opportunities’ when parts of the cladding system could have been identified as dangerous. 

Yet before anyone could be cross-examined over these pivotal moments, witnesses from the core participants lodged a surprise bid for immunity from prosecution relating to any evidence they gave.

Lawyers for the refurbishment team warned that not granting the architects and contractors this immunity might lead to most simply shutting up and pleading their right not to self-incriminate.  

This last-ditch application was slammed by the survivors as ‘reprehensible’.

But, although shocked by the timing, inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick accepted the application and has since asked for the attorney general to draw up a formal undertaking, leading to a pause in the inquiry’s proceedings.

That aside, from what has already been heard, the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower in 2016 seems, as many feared, to have been the tragic result of the design-and-build system at its worst – from the use of an increasingly sidelined architect, inexperienced in the sector, to the maelstrom of conflicting responsibilities set against a backdrop of aggressive cost-cutting.

On top of this, however, there appear to have been individual and corporate failings across the entire project.

Here, the AJ looks at what we learned before the inquiry stalled, who blamed who for what and the key areas that still need scrutiny. 

A merry-go-round of blame 

In his report on the findings of phase one of the inquiry, Moore-Bick concluded that the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower had breached the Building Regulations.

Who’s fault was that? In his damning opening statement to phase two, inquiry barrister Millett criticised all the main parties involved in that refurbishment, including Studio E, saying that their written statements repeatedly ‘buck-passed’ on blame. 

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 the Building Regulations without someone being at fault.

The only exception was Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) – and the local authority’s admission is significant. It said a completion certificate should not have been issued on 7 July 2016 and admitted a litany of building control failures. These included failing to identify that the insulation materials were ‘not of limited combustibility’ and did not satisfy Approved Document B and that there weren’t enough cavity barriers. 

The council’s comeback however – and this is where the blame game begins – is that it was not responsible for the design of the cladding system used on the tower. It argues that ‘there was a fundamental conceptual distinction between a person who creates a design and a person who checks it’.

According to survivors group lawyers, Celotex actively promoted its product as ‘acceptable for use in buildings above 18m high’

So who was in charge of the design? It has become a key question at the heart of the entire inquiry. 

In the words of the client, the Kensington and Chelsea tenants management organisation (TMO), design-and-build contractor Rydon became ‘responsible for ensuring that the design was in compliance with all necessary legislation, codes of practice, best practice and the like’.

But it is not that clear cut. Rydon claims to have delegated numerous design responsibilities to others and says that some decisions had been made before its appointment. In its opening statement, it said both façade contractor Harley and Studio E were contracted to ensure the designs met the Building Regulations.

Studio E, however, said it understood Rydon had delegated design responsibility to Harley Facades. For its part, Harley said responsibility for design compliance lay with Studio E. 

According to Studio E’s opening statement, the issue of compliance was discussed with Rydon in 2014 when the architect claims it told the contractor it ‘could not accept responsibility’ for obtaining Building Regulations approval, suggesting instead it took charge of ‘co-ordinating submissions to Building Control’. According to Studio E, this was ‘verbally agreed’ by Rydon.

Yet Rydon pleaded ignorance over the safety of materials. It said 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. 

Nevertheless, according to the lawyers for one survivors group, Celotex had actively promoted its product as ‘acceptable for use in buildings above 18m high’. They refer to the as-yet-unpublished report by architectural expert to the inquiry Paul Hyett, a former RIBA president, who said Celotex’s claim was both ‘erroneous and misleading’.  

The chaotic situation is summed up in an opening statement from another survivors group: ‘[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.’ 

What we learned about Studio E 

Studio E was the first party to give evidence at the inquiry’s second phase, breaking two years of silence to defend its role on the refurbishment. 

The architect primarily pinned the blame on the regulatory system and said, like Rydon, it did not know the materials used on the tower were unsafe. 

They were not the only ones to point the finger at the regulations. Survivors also said that central government ‘had much to answer for, in failing to overhaul the Building Regulations’ especially Approved Document B, which, they say, should have been amended two decades ago. 

As well as the regulatory confusion, the architect claimed that manufacturers’ materials and testing data had misled it to believe the products were safe. Studio E also pointed to the council, saying the authority’s building control ‘ultimately certified the works as compliant’.

Studio E apparently proposed switching from zinc cladding panels to the cheaper and less fire-resistant ACM as part of a ‘value engineering exercise’ 

But the architect’s position that it did not know products were unsafe was ‘not a defence’, said survivors lawyer Stephanie Barwise, pointing to the fact that the architect failed to specify the correct insulation, which meant a ‘flawed starting point for the whole project’.

It also emerged that it was Studio E that apparently proposed switching from zinc cladding panels to the cheaper and less fire-resistant aluminium composite material (ACM) as part of a ‘value engineering exercise’ prompted by the TMO’s employer’s agent Artelia. 

Barwise was also critical of Studio E’s fixation with the look of the tower, which she said it had decided was an ‘eyesore’. She claimed it agonised between using ‘brushed aluminium and the battleship grey’ on the external façade instead of considering its performance criteria.

Also representing survivors, lawyer Adrian Williamson referred to an ‘Architect’s Appraisal Panel’ held by Kensington & Chelsea Council in 2010, which found the top of the tower was ‘dull’ and could be accentuated.

Williamson said this seems to have been the origin of the tower’s architectural ‘crown’, which played a significant part in the fire. Attention to its ‘aesthetics, not safety, were always the major concern,’ he said.

Studio E’s suitability for the job was also questioned. The inquiry heard that, having just delivered a leisure centre for the council, the TMO approached Studio E to work on Grenfell too, but Studio E associate Bruce Sounes was a little apprehensive. He emailed his colleague saying: ‘We are a little green on process and technicality so I propose some rapid CPD.’

Lawyers pointed to this, and a lack of experience in overcladding tower blocks, as evidence that the TMO hired the ‘wrong architect’ – one that did not have the know-how to work on the project. 

As described earlier, there remain huge discrepancies between what Studio E claims the extent of its role was on Grenfell Tower and what others thought it was. This is further complicated by the fact its role changed significantly once Rydon was brought in and Studio E became the novated architect under the new design-and-build contract. 

Despite procurement methods not being part of the inquiry’s formal scope, the design-and-build route itself was also identified as being at the core of the problems of fragmentation that dogged the project. ‘Under design and build there is a danger that the architects, once novated, are squeezed out of the process,’ one submission stated. ‘They are, after all, now a cost burden for the design-and-build contractor. That certainly seems to have happened here.’ 

A culture of cost-cutting  

In the aftermath of the fire, it emerged that a drive to save around £300,000 drove the decision to wrap the tower in the deadly aluminium composite material (ACM) panels instead of zinc. While shocking, the evidence heard so far suggests this was no isolated incident, but characteristic of a project that faced squeezed budgets right from the start.

As one survivors lawyer put it, those leading the refurbishment had ‘limitless appetite for investigating cost savings, but little zeal in respect of fire safety’.

The inquiry heard how, in 2013 during the early stages of the project, it became clear that contractor Leadbitter was looking for a fee of £11.3 million, £1.6 million above the council’s budget.

In a bid to reduce the gap, the TMO was searching for savings, with the tower’s façade one of the target areas. An email from Studio E’s Sounes suggested: ‘The obvious targets for savings are … change zinc cladding material to something cheaper.’

 From the TMO and council’s point of view, it made sense that the bare minimum was spent,  lawyers argued. 

As to why the TMO and council were so keen to reduce costs instead of setting a realistic budget, lawyers pointed to a report by the council which showed that ‘in purely economic terms the refurbishment made no sense’. 

The report noted that, even after completion of the works, the negative value of Grenfell Tower would remain significant: minus £1.64 million. ‘From [the TMO and council’s] point of view, it made sense that the bare minimum was spent,’ the survivors’ lawyers argued.

Grenfell tower webcrop

Grenfell tower webcrop

By spring 2013 the TMO and the council were still unsure Leadbitter could provide value for money and decided to put the refurbishment scheme out to tender. 

In the prequalification process, Rydon had the worst score of all five bidding contractors. Yet it was still allowed to tender, submitting by far the lowest bid: £9.25 million, compared with Durkan at £9.94 million and Mulalley at £10.43 million. Rydon eventually won the contract for £2.5 million less than Leadbitter’s original estimate.

In her opening statement, lawyer Barwise accused the TMO of ‘breaching procurement procedures’ by entering discussions with Rydon before it had been handed preferred bidder status and seeking a reduction in costs of £800,000. This was the exact amount the company’s tender had exceeded TMO’s available budget of £8.7 million. 

Barwise said: ‘That private negotiation included – amongst other reductions – a £243,000 reduction in the cladding costs, involving a change from the zinc cladding specified to one of the alternative options included within the specification, namely ACM.’

This was the second breach of procurement alleged by Barwise. To get particular consultants, including Studio E, on to Grenfell, the TMO ‘circumvented public procurement legislation’ by capping their fees below the thresholds at which the then-in-force Public Contract Regulations would have triggered a competitive procurement process, she claimed.

The TMO’s opening statement argued the ‘value engineering exercise’ it undertook with Rydon was standard industry practice and would ‘in no way compromise on quality or safety’. It also added that at ‘no point’ did any of the professionals appointed by the TMO raise ‘any issues or concerns’ that the cladding might not be safe.

However, according to Barwise, the requested cost-cutting was ‘dressed up as value engineering, but to be properly so described it would have needed to preserve or improve functionality at a lesser cost’.

The inquiry’s opening days heard repeatedly how this prioritising of cost over safety was partly to blame for the unsuitable materials ending up on the tower. As the opening statement from lawyer for the residents Imran Khan read: ‘In short, as far as RBKC/TMO were concerned our clients’ lives were not worth it. Their lives were cheap.’ 

Grenfell feb2020 charts who hired who

Grenfell feb2020 charts who hired who


Readers' comments (4)

  • Two points;

    - As far as I remember, and it cannot now be easily checked, Celotex had director level representation on the Building Regulations Advisory Committee prior to the Grenfell fire.
    (There is still no architect representative on that committee).

    - there are at least 60 other tower blocks of flats affected by dangerous cladding - the full number being kept secret by the Government.
    Successive governments have negligently failed to improve fire regulations following enquiries into previous fires.

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  • It's difficult to understand why procurement methods are not part of the enquiry's formal scope - and I wonder whether examination of the surely very relevant history of the preceding fire at Lakanal House will be part of the scope?
    In seeking immunity from prosecution, have the architects disqualified themselves from the right to practice?
    Will the ARB need to adjudicate on whether this should be termed unprofessional conduct, or decide to keep out of the 'chaotic mess' that ultimately resulted in seventy two people losing their lives?

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  • I have 2 problems with this. Firstly, every article keeps mentioning that Studio E was inexperienced in recladding towers. That may be the case, but since that cladding product was used in thousands of buildings in the UK, surely it's an industry problem and not due to Studio E's experience levels? If anything, using that product indicates a level of familiarity with industry standards. Punishing Studio E for suggesting it while that product is being stripped off thousands of buildings in the country would be bizarre.
    Secondly - how are architects supposed to get experience in a new sector? Obviously we can't all start our own firms with decades of experience in every sector. You start somewhere. No architect would have turned down that role on Grenfell. First, because it was offered by an existing client, whom you want to please. And second, because it's a new sector and you want to expand your portfolio. And third, because it was a D&B contract and architects are taught that D&B reduces their liability. 

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  • This is chilling confirmation that the construction industry is broken. It’s regulation and materials testing sector is clearly broken and quite possibly deeply corrupt. BRE were advising government not to change this clearly catastrophic regulatory landscape, while taking testing fees from the cladding and insulation industry (using a flawed and inadequate testing protocol). Presumably they would do anything for money after privatisation in 1997. The only mystery is why their former chief executives are not yet facing criminal prosecutions? They must already have been interviewed by the police?

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