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Studio E ‘knew’ Grenfell cladding could fail, inquiry told

Grenfell one month on
  • 5 Comments

Email exchanges show Studio E Architects ‘appear to have known’ the cladding panels used on the Grenfell Tower would fail in a fire, according to the lawyer for insulation manufacturer Celotex 

In its opening submission to the inquiry today (28 January) Celotex, which made the insulation fitted behind the Reynobond PE panels, claims that messages between Studio E staff, contractor Rydon, fire safety expert Exova and façade company Harley in March 2015 pointed to the potential dangers of the material.

Yesterday in its own opening statement, Studio E said it did not have any knowledge at the time that the products used on the tower were unsafe – and that it could not reasonably have been expected to know the products were unsafe. But this appears to be contradicted by Celotex’s evidence.

Celotex’s statement begins by stating that the ‘façade [as built] would have been non-compliant with Building Regulations, and failed with the same tragic consequences, irrespective of anything done or not done by Celotex’.

It goes on to claim that the design team did ‘not appear … to give any, or any adequate, consideration to the fire safety risks posed by Reynobond PE panels’, which were made from an aluminium composite material (ACM).

The statement adds that when the decision was made in 2014 to switch from zinc to the ACM system a ‘major investigation’ of the ACM material should have been undertaken by the designers, contractors and consultants. 

But no investigation was made, says Celotex, adding that it was ‘all the more striking’ that the design team and the contractor ‘all appear to have known that the panels would fail in the event of a fire where external flaming occurred’.

It cites a series of emails between the design team and contractor that appear to imply they were aware of the unsuitability of the cladding. Celotex claims the risks were made known in messages linked to a debate with building control about whether cavity barriers or fire-stops were needed in the rainscreen cavity.

In one email sent internally at Harley on 27 March 2015 – after the materials had switched due to cost reasons – one employee noted: ‘There is no point in “fire stopping”, as we all know; the ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire!’

This was followed on 31 March 2015 when an Exova employee told an architect at Studio E: ‘It is difficult to see how a fire-stop would stay in place in the event of a fire where external flaming occurred as this would cause the zinc cladding to fail.’

Studio E associate Neil Crawford responded: ‘This was my point as well – metal cladding always burns and falls off, hence fire stopping is usually just to the back of the cladding line.’

Crawford forwarded the email to an employee of Rydon, noting that none of the parties agreed with Building Control on the safety of the cladding. Simon Lawerence, contracts manager at Rydon, replied: ‘Excellent. That looks positive.’

In a later exchange, another Harley employee wrote: ‘If significant flames are ejected from the windows, this would lead to failure of the cladding system, with the external surface falling away and exposing the cavity, eliminating the potential for unseen fire spread.’

Celotex added in its statement (see attached): ‘Whilst expressed in slightly different terms, the substance of what each of Harley, Studio E, Exova and Rydon was openly acknowledging in the above emails was that the cladding would fail in the event of a fire with external flaming.’ 

The insulation manufacturer said in its submission that: ‘Neither of Studio E’s architects involved in the project (Mr Sounes and Mr Crawford) appear to have had any, or any adequate, understanding of the requirements of ADB2 concerning the use of combustible materials and/or the provision of cavity barriers in a rainscreen cladding system.’

Extract from Celotex’s opening statement

For example, the Module 1 Experts variously conclude that:

12.1 The design of the cladding façade by Studio E and Harley was deficient and flawed, by reason in particular of: 

12.1.2 Studio E’ s specification, and Harley’ s concurrence in the specification, of insulation which was not of limited combustibility;

12.1.3 The failure by Studio E and Harley to identify and resolve the problems created by the need to position the replacement windows in the line of the cladding façade, out and away from the concrete window surrounds of the original building structure;

12.1.4 The failure by Studio E and Harley to address and resolve the problem created by gaps between the edges of the replacement window frames and the concrete window surrounds (which provided a route by which fire could readily escape into the cladding);

12.1.5 The failure by Studio E and Harley to design and devise any coherent strategy for the provision of cavity barriers in the rainscreen cladding system in accordance with the requirements of Approved Document B

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Industry Professional

    It looks as though we are really getting to the heart of the matter now.
    While I am not a fire expert, these emails indicate rather flawed thinking to me. I am interested to see if any of those more involved with similar work feel prepared to comment on these revelations.
    I commend the AJ for giving a better, more-in depth context to the emails than some other media outlets.
    By the end of this I would hope that many in the construction industry will be wiser and more cautious. It is the least we owe to those who died or were bereaved.
    Jeffrey 9 an engineer - via IHS

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  • John Kellett

    But which party insisted that the wrong product be used? NO architect can insist a particular product is either used or not used. We are only allowed to 'advise'. Are we liable if clients or contractors decide not to follow our advice? If that is so, the cost of using qualified professionals needs to be very much higher.

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  • P Latham

    Riba approved schools are not training enough of technical skills and architects are akin to fashion designers as a result. It’s blindingly obvious to me that the cladding burning off misunderstands the Venturi effect. The multiple gaps where fire stopping met steel supports combined with hot gasses entering the cavity would pull the fire upwards flaring through the gaps like a blow lamp. The thing was a fire bomb awaiting a fuse. Those who lost their lives in this appalling tragedy are in all our hearts now and there must be justice. That should also point at all modernist fashion designer architects and the training system for architects as much as it does those individuals in the firing line.

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  • In any situation where expert advisers are employed, there is surely an understandable tendency for any architect to 'take on board' their advice unless there is good cause to question or discount it.

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  • I think it is important to reiterate that this was a PFI building procurement, in light of the comments above. The contract type was Design & Build, which is contractor-led. The building contractor is responsible for detailed design in this form of building procurement, and the architect’s appointment usually ends after they have completed their ‘fashion design’ and obtained planning permission.

    In the absence of any ‘golden thread’ of design quality, or even competent technical detailed design (not to mention a clerk of works), it seems inevitable that incompetence rules, especially when the profit motive prevails above all else. Contractor-led procurement is meant to improve ‘buildability’ and control costs and programme. Architects and clerks of works often delay construction and make buildings more expensive though their pursuit of design quality and technical competence.

    Consequently, it was deemed more economically efficient, for the past forty years, to appoint building contractors to lead the building procurement process and use design consultants, such as architects, as ‘fashion designers’ or ‘hair stylists’. The latter are useful for concepts and ideas to obtain planning permission, but not to be trusted with the practicalities of building construction and technical health and safety issues, as they are idealist dreamers who make everything more expensive than is necessary.

    The architecture schools continue to respond enthusiastically to the role of the artistic stylist in the curriculum, leaving the practical experience phase of the acolytes’ training to fill any gaps in their knowledge (RIBA Part 3). It is no longer necessary to teach architects any practical or technical knowledge, as the self-regulating building contractors and their subbies possess all of this expertise.

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