Grenfell: Manufacturers ‘untroubled by safety’ of products

Stephanie Barwise QC, representing the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster, appeared before the Grenfell Tower Inquiry remotely

The manufacturers of the cladding and insulation products used on the exterior wall of Grenfell Tower during its refurbishment were “untroubled by the safety of their products”, the legal counsel representing the bereaved and survivors of the disaster that killed 72 people has told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

The comments came in Stephanie Barwise QC’s opening statement at the start of module 2 of phase 2 of the inquiry, which examines the principal materials used in the cladding system installed at the tower.

Those materials were: the Reynobond PE 55 cladding or rainscreen panels manufactured and sold by Arconic; the RS5000 insulation boards manufactured and sold by Celotex; the Kingspan Kooltherm K15 insulation boards manufactured and sold by Kingspan; the window infill panels made by Aluglaze; and the Lamatherm cavity barriers manufactured and sold by Siderise.

In her opening statement, Barwise said: “The serious implications raised by the manufacturers’ testing and promotion of the products used at Grenfell, which includes the independence of testing and certification bodies, require a radical re-think of the current regulatory framework and testing regimes.

"The supposedly independent test and certification bodies acted in breach of the duties of impartiality and accuracy imposed on them by international standards, implemented in the UK by British Standards. The failings and susceptibility to abuse of the large-scale fire testing regime are of the utmost importance, since this regime underlies the government’s building safety programme, which prescribes the extent to which the combinations of products used on façades are safe or not.

“Critically, that programme currently allows on high-rise residential buildings so-called flame retardant (FR) polyethylene-cored cladding, albeit only in conjunction with mineral wool insulation, and also allows foam insulation, albeit only in conjunction with A2-cored composite cladding.

"These may in fact be dangerous combinations, given the inherent flaws in large-scale testing, and the way in which it’s been abused to our knowledge from the very outset in 2005, namely just before the introduction of large-scale testing as an alternative route to compliance for both cladding and insulation as a system.

"These combinations certainly would not be permissible in new-builds or overcladding now, since the amendment of the Building Regulations in 2018 to prohibit the use of any material below A2 in the façade.”

‘Clever marketing’

Barwise said the “most sinister” aspect of events leading to the product selection at Grenfell Tower was the manner in which manufacturers “well understood” the statutory regulation and guidance but sought to circumvent it by “clever marketing”.

She said: “The manufacturers Kingspan, Celotex and Arconic understood the importance of and misconceptions about class 0 classification in the UK, and went out of their way to advertise their products as having class 0, even though in fact neither the Kingspan K15 or Celotex RS5000 and TB4000 insulation, nor the PE 55 cladding panel used at Grenfell in fact had class 0 classification.

"What is more, class 0 was of no relevance whatsoever to insulation, since the classification is only required under the linear route for the surface of the cladding panel, which was required to be class 0, whereas the insulation was required to be of limited combustibility throughout. The manufacturers regarded so-called independent certification, such as British Board of Agrément certificates, known as BBA certificates, or Local Authority Building Control, LABC, certificates , as mere marketing tools and, as a result , those manufacturers were anything but candid in their dealings with these bodies.

“Arconic, Kingspan and Celotex well understood that the building control officer was the only obstacle to getting their products on to high-rise buildings, despite the use of such products over 18 metres being a breach of the Building Regulations and ADB, if the linear route was being followed. The means to circumvent building control officers was by satisfying them with a BBA or LABC certificate.

"Yet worse, these manufacturers and their trade associations appear to have lobbied institutions such as the National House Building Council and the Building Control Alliance, which give guidance to industry and, in particular, the building control sector. This enabled the manufacturers to in effect rewrite the guidance provided by Approved Document B, since they persuaded those institutions to produce guidance, notably BCA’s Technical Guidance Note 18, first issued June 2014, and NHBC’s July 2016 guidance on the acceptability of combustible materials in common wall constructions, including ACM, on high-rise buildings.

"Both these pieces of guidance in some respects contravened both the Building Regulations and the guidance contained in ADB.”

Manufacturers refute claims

But Arconic, Kingspan and Celotex all disputed the claims against them.

Stephen Hockman QC, representing Arconic, said that Arconic UK representative Deborah French had made available a copy of the BBA certificate for its cladding panels available to the team working on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment.

He said: “There can be no doubt that the decision as to the choice of product and method of fabrication was a matter for others, and not for her. In the event, we know that the information provided by the company as to methods of fabrication was unfortunately not consulted by those involved in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project.”

Hockman went on to question the way in which the product had been used during construction work. He said: “On the tower itself, only two-thirds of the external surface comprised ACM PE, and, of that, at least 50% was comprised of panels fabricated in a fashion which can only be described as unorthodox.

"Indeed, as pointed out by Mr Hyett [expert architectural witness Paul Hyett], the ACM PE used on the columns and crown of the tower were fabricated in a way which was entirely peculiar to Grenfell Tower, and which could not possibly have been anticipated by the company in a construction project of any kind. In relation to the more orthodox 50%, even that was utilised within what I might call an irregular building construction.

"There were numerous departures from regulatory guidance, including matters such as the absence of cavity barriers around window openings and so on. These deficiencies were not something which the company could have been expected to anticipate.”

And Hockman said the fire performance of the product should not be judged “in isolation” but should be assessed as “one component of an overall wall assembly”.

“Therefore, it was both permissible and appropriate for the company to rely on promoting its product on the class 0 classification or certification,” he added

Craig Orr QC, representing Celotex, confirmed that its polyisocyanurate (PIR) insulation product RS5000 was used as insulation in the rainscreen cladding system at Grenfell, while another product, TB4000 was used to fill gaps in the windows surrounds.

He said: “The construction or refurbishment of a building over 18 metres involves a number of construction industry professionals from a variety of disciplines. They are responsible for ensuring that the building works comply with the Building Regulations. That responsibility does not and cannot realistically fall on the manufacturer of an individual product such as Celotex.

"That indeed was the position in respect of Grenfell Tower. Celotex was not part of the design or construction team on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment. Celotex did not design or construct the rainscreen cladding system at Grenfell Tower. Its sole role was as the manufacturer of insulation which was supplied, through third-party distributors, for the refurbishment.”

He added that following the disaster, Celotex suspended the sale of RS5000 and under managing director Dean O’Sullivan, who was appointed in May 2016, the company discovered “certain matters” relating to the testing, certification and marketing of Celotex’s products that the current management was unaware of.

“Once established, these matters were promptly announced by notices on Celotex’s website and reported to the relevant authorities, including testing and certification bodies, the Ministry of Housing,  Communities and Local Government, Trading Standards and the Metropolitan Police. In addition, Celotex made a full report of these matters to the Inquiry,” Orr said.

He went on: “It conducted extensive due diligence in relation to the testing of its products, and it commissioned additional fire safety testing of both its 4000 and 5000 ranges of insulation. That testing confirmed that those products achieved the classifications that they were stated to have at the time of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment.

"Celotex recognises that the matters which emerged during its investigations involved inappropriate and unacceptable conduct on the part of a number of employees. This was of real concern to Celotex’s current management. Some of the employees involved had already left the company. Those who remained were the subject of disciplinary proceedings. Six employees resigned between December 2017 and March 2018.”

Representing Kingspan, Geraint Webb QC said that although the firm had no knowledge that any of its insulation had been used in Grenfell Tower, it was now clear that a “limited amount” of its K15 phenolic insulation was used when there were gaps in the availability of Celotex RS5000 and that another of its products, TP10, was used in some window reveals.

Webb said: “The company has looked in detail at its processes and procedures and has identified some important process shortcomings, particularly in relation to the way that three BS 8414 tests, one undertaken in 2005 and two in 2014, were conducted and relied upon for the marketing of K15.

"However, further testing undertaken in 2015, 2016 and since the fire has supported and validated the performance claims made historically in respect of those three earlier tests. The company is confident, therefore, that at the time of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, these shortcomings did not affect the safety of any cladding system incorporating K15 which relied upon those three BS 8414 tests.”

He continued: “It’s important to note that Kingspan Insulation was not asked to provide and did not provide any advice to those responsible for the refurbishment about the suitability of K15 for use on Grenfell Tower with PE-cored ACM cladding. Indeed, the company did not know that any of its K15 product had been used on Grenfell Tower until after the fire had occurred.”

The Grenfell Towe Inquiry continues.

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  1. The question may well arise in the minds of many of how a manufacturer can make a product without considering it’s purpose and scope of application?

  2. The use of foam insulation has become ubiquitous over recent years. You now find it in the walls, roofs, and floors of many buildings. Following Grenfell, I now question this. Are we building flammable boxes, primed to release cyanide upon ignition? I think maybe we have sleep-walked into a situation where everyone seems to be using it, so we assume it must be safe.

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