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Reviewing the Grenfell inquiry: what we know at this point

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With the inquiry paused due to coronavirus restrictions, Ella Jessel and Richard Waite unpick where things currently stand

For the first time, earlier this month, the survivors and the bereaved from the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in 2017 heard, in person, from the people who designed its flawed refurbishment. 

Studio E Architects was the first to take the stand. The firm has not come off well. 

Earlier, written statements from all the companies involved in the overcladding project had painted a confused picture, with a lot of finger-pointing and a design and build process which scattered responsibility.Would the testimonies from the individuals involved clear things up under forensic probing by the inquiry’s lawyers?

Oral evidence from Studio E Architects has reinforced suspicions about how broken the construction system is. But it has also revealed how the practice deferred its fees to get the job, acted on assumptions and ‘standard industry practice’, rather than contracted duties, had not thoroughly scrutinised documentation, and had lacked key knowledge.

Bruce sounes

Bruce sounes

Bruce Sounes

The revelation from Studio E associate and Grenfell Tower project lead Bruce Sounes that he had not checked the relevant parts of Approved Document B in the regulations covering fire safety for tall buildings was jaw-dropping, not least because he had never worked on a high-rise project before.

Sounes, who had followed practice director Andrzej Kuszell in giving evidence, was later taken ill and was unable to return to the stand.

The inquiry subsequently heard from former Foster + Partners’ associate Neil Crawford (pictured top), who took over from Sounes on the day-to-day running of the job.

Unlike Sounes, Crawford mounted a defence of the practice’s role on the project, which, he argued, was limited post-novation.

Though only the architects have so far been heard, clear issues have arisen about Studio E’s performance. Here the AJ investigates five issues to have emerged from the practice’s evidence.

How Studio E got the job

Even before Studio E’s evidence was heard, concerns had been raised about whether the practice should even have been working on the Grenfell Tower project. It had effectively landed the project for Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) on the back of its work for the local council on the linked Kensington Academy and Leisure Centre (KALC).

The tower job had never gone out to tender. Indeed, earlier in the inquiry, a lawyer representing survivors and the bereaved suggested the practice – which had no experience of overcladding tall buildings – had circumvented public procurement legislation by capping its fees below the thresholds which would have triggered a competitive procurement process.

Lawyers heard that Studio E agreed to defer a portion of its fees so that the bill would be under the £174,000 OJEU procurement threshold

The inquiry lawyers subsequently heard from Sounes that Studio E had agreed to defer a portion of its fees on the Grenfell Tower job so that the bill for its stages A-D would be under the £174,000 OJEU procurement threshold.

The inquiry was shown a meeting note written by Sounes from July 2012, which said: ‘TMO would like … the total fee up until stage D not exceeding £174,000 which is the OJEU threshold for requiring work to be tendered. This will probably mean deferring some fees.’

Studio E’s total fee was revealed to be double that: £323,000, or 4.75 per cent of the scheme’s budget. Sounes said in his written statement to the inquiry: ‘[I] believed the overall fee to deliver the project would be higher than the OJEU threshold, and Studio E may not be able to qualify in a bid process.’ The practice had therefore planned to bill £161,000 up to stage E.

Sounes defended how Studio E had staggered the fees. Replying to inquiry lawyer Kate Grange, he said: ‘Your first question was whether I had manipulated [fee payments] to come under the OJEU threshold, and my response is that those fee allocations per stage – the 5 per cent, 10 per cent, 20 per cent – to me, look fairly typical.’

However, it later emerged that the scheme’s budget had gone up, meaning that, on a percentage basis, Studio E’s fee for its early-stage work had also risen (to £190,000) and over the OJEU threshold.

Regarding the rising budget, inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick asked Sounes: ‘Did you ever suggest to the TMO that, because of the level of fees, it ought to go out to tender?’

Sounes said: ‘I’m afraid I don’t have the insight on the OJEU rules to take a view on what ought to have happened.’

Was Studio E too inexperienced?

The inquiry lawyers challenged Studio E over whether it had the right experience for the Grenfell Tower commission.

In the witness box, practice co-founder Kuszell, 70, admitted 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, the architect insisted it was ‘false’ to say the practice’s lack of similar projects in its portfolio meant it could not do the work. His associate, Crawford, later backed him up, saying ‘learning on the job’ was how the profession worked.

The lawyers also focused on why Crawford, who joined Studio E in 2009 from Foster + Partners, was running the project day-to-day if he wasn’t a qualified architect. Asked whether a project lead would usually be a staff member who had completed RIBA Part 3, he said: ‘Normally, but not exclusively. There are plenty of practices who have very senior people who are not fully qualified.’

Andrzej kuszell

Andrzej kuszell

Andrzej Kuszell

Kuszell was also cross-examined over an email sent to him by Sounes, saying there was a need for ‘rapid CPD’ on Grenfell, as the practice was a ‘little green’. The co-founder said this merely showed a recognition there was a need for some project-specific research on the project, adding: ‘There was no reason to doubt we couldn’t do it.’

There is little evidence, however, that anyone at Studio E actually went on to undertake significant levels of ‘rapid CPD’.

Sounes made the startling admission that he had not read the relevant sections of the Building Regulations covering fire safety

In fact, Sounes made the startling admission that he had not read the relevant sections of the Building Regulations covering fire safety for tall buildings and was only partially familiar with section B4, which covers external fire spread.

Meanwhile, Crawford said he was aware of the relevant regulations on fire safety but would not have sat down and ‘read the Building Regulations’.

He described how architects used the regs like an ‘encyclopaedia’, adding: ‘You don’t read it from front to back, you look at the documents as they become relevant.’

Drilling down into the workflow of how plans for the tower were approved, the inquiry’s lawyer showed Crawford a 2015 email from façade contractor Harley Facades, asking for ‘approval/comment’ of a drawing.

Harley studio e evidence

Harley studio e evidence

Crawford said he did not understand this to be the subcontractor seeking compliance approval, but merely his comments on architectural intent. He said: ‘There is common misuse in the industry between [the words] “approval” and “comment”. I think the word “approval” is used very loosely.’

On his third and final day on the stand, Crawford also hit out at the government for failing to amend the ‘unfit’ Building Regulations despite knowing of the dangers years before the Grenfell disaster.

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?’

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.

Studio E’s ‘limited’ role

In the opening days of the inquiry’s second phase, it was clear that the companies involved in the refurb of Grenfell Tower were backing away from taking responsibility for its design. The contractor, architect and subcontractor all pointed fingers at each other.

In the witness box, Crawford, who took over the running of the project from July 2014, fleshed out the architect’s position, namely that contractor Rydon and its specialist contractor Harley Facades were responsible for ensuring the cladding designs were compliant with fire regulations.

So what was Studio E doing? Crawford explained the practice’s role had become more ‘limited’ post-novation, but that its job was to check that the plans of the specialist designers ‘met architectural intent’.

‘Architects don’t approve drawings; they comment on them, that’s the distinction,’ Crawford said, adding Harley Facades and Rydon would have known this was ‘standard industry practice’.

Richard millett

Richard millett

Richard Millett

However, inquiry lawyer Richard Millett QC pointed out Studio E’s understanding of its role was in conflict with the schedule of architectural services laid out in its deed of appointment with Rydon. 

This deed, which was not formalised until the end of the project in late 2016, states that Studio E was required to seek to ensure the designs complied with relevant statutory requirements.

It has emerged previously that Studio E did try to amend ‘onerous’ terms in its deed of appointment but then ended up signing it, with only minimal changes, under pressure from Rydon.

Pressed later on why he was not made aware of the obligations in the deed of appointment, Crawford told the inquiry it was not unusual in the industry to find projects running with ’very badly put-together contracts’ that didn’t reflect the reality on site.

Elsewhere in his evidence, Crawford explained how he relied on the advice of fire safety engineer Exova, which he considered to be the authority on ‘all things fire related’.

Asked specifically about why Celotex insulation RS5000 was considered appropriate, Crawford claimed the product manufacturer had said it was suitable in buildings above 18m and Exova gave a ‘fairly emphatic’ confirmation it could be used. 

It’s masquerading horse meat as a beef lasagne and people bought it

Crawford also hit out at manufacturer Celotex’s marketing material, saying it was ‘deliberately misleading’, and adding: ‘It’s masquerading horse meat as a beef lasagne and people bought it. All I can say is the totality of what was written there made me understand that this product was compliant in that use.’

Earlier in the inquiry there was also confusion over who was lead consultant, with Studio E and Artelia both claiming the other had that role.

Under cross-examination Sounes acknowledged he had filled out the box for that role in a service agreement from 2012 and later admitted that Studio E had carried out duties akin to a lead consultant.

Was there a preoccupation with appearance?

Prior to the practice taking the stand, Studio E faced criticism for focusing on the appearance of the tower. Millett asked Kuszell how the practice saw Grenfell Tower in comparison with KALC, 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 the ‘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.’

Studio E’s limited concerns about fire safety

The inquiry heard that Sounes did have concerns at the outset of the job – but few of them related to fire safety.

Questioned as to why he had said in his written witness statement that the job was complex, he replied that Grenfell was an existing high-rise building ‘with a single means of escape’. But he added that one of the most problematic aspects was altering the building ‘quite significantly, with the residents in it’.

Asked if he agreed ‘that the overcladding of the building envelope was by far the most complicated part of the project in terms of design, specification and regulatory compliance’, Sounes answered ‘No’.

When further questioned specifically on any risks he anticipated with the cladding, Sounes said: ‘I think the risk that certainly did occur to us was the weight of the cladding.’

Both Sounes and Crawford said they had relied on consultants such as fire expert Exova. Yet the inquiry lawyers asked them why neither Sounes nor Crawford had picked up on the apparent lack of attention given to overcladding in two of the fire expert’s reports.

And, it emerged, Exova did have concerns about the architect’s plans more generally. An internal email sent by Exova early in the design process, following a conversation between one of its employees and Sounes, showed that the consultant had concerns about plans to merge ‘uses around a single stair’. 

It read: ‘Basically I have told him we can massage the proposal to something acceptable, with separation, lobbies etc, but that there are approvals risks to the project on the shaft/MOE [method of escape] front.

It goes on: ‘They are making an existing crap condition worse so it’s a matter of working the worse bits out and making the new stuff work. No sprinklers wanted.’

Asked about the contents of this internal email, Sounes told the inquiry: ‘It raises a level of concern I was not aware of.’

On Sounes’ final day of evidence it emerged the architect had urged the TMO not to show the fire strategy to the fire brigade because they might support a ‘severe interpretation of the regulations’.

In an email sent on 1 April 2014, Claire Williams of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the project’s client, told Sounes she had met a ‘fire engineer liaison chap’ and wanted to get the fire strategy ‘on to their radar’. She asked Sounes to send the fire strategy, authored by fire experts Exova, ‘asap’.

Sounes replied to her the next day with a copy of the fire strategy and accompanying mark-ups by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBCK).

But he said: ‘I would not show this to the LFB [London Fire Brigade]. They are likely to support the severe interpretations of the regulations which Exova believe are unnecessary because this is in an existing building.’

The inquiry is currently on hold owing to safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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