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Studio E responsible for ACM cladding switch, inquiry hears

Grenfell©londonmetropolitanpolice
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Studio E Architects suggested the switch from zinc cladding panels to the cheaper and less fire-resistant aluminium composite material (ACM), the Grenfell inquiry has been told

Lawyers from one of three different groups of bereaved survivors and residents today (30 January) argued that the architect put forward the change of material as part of the tenant management organisation (TMO)’s ‘value engineering exercise’. 

‘What this essentially meant was cost-cutting, so that materials which should have been identified by Studio E as being unsafe and unsuitable to be used on the tower, were not,’ one submission states.

An opening statement from another group suggests Studio E’s proposed switch followed a meeting with Harley Facades, with the architect stating ‘their recurring experience is that budgets force clients to adopt the cheapest cladding option: aluminium composite material (ACM), face-fixed.’

The group also quotes emails from Studio E associate Bruce Sounes, who observed ‘the obvious targets for savings are: …Change zinc cladding material to something cheaper.

‘I think Planning will need a sweetener to swallow this, perhaps copper, ceramic, terracotta or more glass at low level’. In response to this, the employer’s agent to the TMO, Artelia commented: ‘Most of your list seems to be omissions or downgrading the spec as opposed to VE [value engineering].’

In addition, another bereaved survivors and residents group, represented by QC Stephanie Barwise, said Studio E ‘did not act with reasonable skill and care’ when designing the refurbishment.

Barwise added that the National Building Specification produced by Studio E – which contractors tendered against – contained inappropriate products such as combustible insulation.

Meanwhile, lawyer Balvinder Gill, who was representing a further group of survivors, condemned the buck-passing of all the core participants, saying that they had ‘blood on their hands’.

Materials which should have been identified by Studio E as being unsafe were not

Experience

The counsel for one survivors’ group also revealed that Studio E, by its own admission, was ill-prepared to carry out the design work.

In an email sent after Studio E was made the lead consultant – a role the practice denies it fulfilled – Sounes admitted the practice was ‘a little green on process and technicality’ adding that he proposed ‘some rapid CPD’.

In a statement submitted to the Grenfell Inquiry, which has not been published in full, Sounes said he made the remarks because Studio E ‘had not previously been involved in high-rise residential heating renewal nor the overcladding of occupied buildings’.

A statement from another group of survivors and residents added: ’[The council] and the TMO selected an architectural practice which lacked the requisite experience of overcladding tower blocks.’]

The inquiry also heard that, from August 2014 onwards, Sounes ‘stepped back from day-to-day involvement’ and left the project in the hands of Neil Crawford.

According to one of the groups of survivors and bereaved, ‘Crawford was not a fully qualified architect and lacked the necessary experience, but was left to sink on his own’. 

Aesthetics

The practice was also accused of being more concerned about selecting the right colour scheme for its Grenfell tower revamp than it was about complying with Building Regulations.

Barwise said: ‘Studio E was so intent on getting what it considered to be the right aesthetic outcome – agonising as between the brushed aluminium and the battleship grey – that instead of focusing on or even considering the performance criteria, it instead defined the product in the specification … purely by reference to aesthetic criteria.’ 

In a written submission accompanying Barwise’s remarks, the bereaved survivors and residents note: ‘In a very real sense, Studio E dictated the outcome of the refurbishment, in that the die was initially cast by Studio E’s NBS specification, the focus of which was on aesthetics of the cladding, rather than setting performance criteria for the cladding materials.’

Also representing the group, Lawyer Adrian Williamson QC said while it was striking that cost seemed to be the main driver of the refurbishment, the other was aesthetics and ‘how the tower looked’.

Williamson refers 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.

This, according to the statement, seems to have been the origin of Grenfell Tower’s architectural ‘crown’ which played a significant part in the fire and ‘to which aesthetics, not safety, were always the major concern’.  

Extract from opening statement of BSRs represented by Imran Khan and Partners

Studio E were the architects in the main design team and were involved in the project from inception. Studio E prepared the National Building Specification (NBS) in January 2014 which included “Not less than 150mm for spandrel panels and 80mm for columns” of Celotex insulation in reference to the FR5000 product.

It was Bruce Sounes (architect of Studio E) who suggested the cladding material change from zinc to aluminium (which was the material actually used on the Tower) when the TMO requested a ‘value engineering’ exercise to take place: what this essentially meant was cost cutting, so that materials which should have been identified by Studio E as being unsafe and unsuitable to be used on the Tower, were not.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • What a god-awful headline. Total clickbait. AJ states in their headline that Studio E made the decision to switch the cladding. Then 2 paragraphs in the author contradicts his clickbait headline and says they may have actually changed it after meeting the facade contractor. Ok, so why did you slap that on to your headline if it's not confirmed? Adding "inquiry hears" to the headline is completely dishonest if 2 paragraphs later you say the inquiry heard something totally different.

    And no discussion anywhere of the fact that value engineering itself was not the architect's decision, or that this cladding was routinely used in the industry at that time. Awful journalism rushed out to grab the clicks.

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  • Industry Professional

    I am sure I heard the BBC report yesterday evening that one of the legal representatives yesterday said something like those involved "fired the gun that murdered the 72 people".
    While not trying in anyway to diminish the seriousness of the errors that led to the tragedy, the comment strikes me as going too far. It might be claimed that those involved "loaded the gun" but they did not set fire to the cladding so they did not fire the proverbial gun.
    Jeffrey (an engineer - via IHS)

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  • The quotation was far worse than heard by Jeffrey. Reported in the Daily Telegraph today "Sam Stein QC, representing one group of bereaved and survivors, said the companies behind the refurbishment "killed those 72 people as sure as if they had taken careful aim with a gun and pulled the trigger""

    The inference highlighted by Jeffrey above is bad enough, but "...taking careful aim..." blatantly accuses the companies of setting out with the sole intention of killing those 72 people.

    We are used to the verbal swaggering of legal representatives under the protection of the Courts, for statement that would otherwise be actionable, but this example goes beyond the pale.

    To be able to make such a reprehensible accusation simply to garner the approbation of his vulnerable clients is regrettable. Sam Stein QC should be ashamed.

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  • If Studio-E and their collaborative project team are responsible for specifying inadequate cladding from a fire perspective when it appears to comply with the then Approved Document B fig. 40, is it because this legislation is incomprehensible and "not fit for purpose!". Otherwise the hundreds of other project teams that also do not comply , but have not had a fire, will also be guilty!

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