Grenfell Tower: cladding the culprit, but who is to blame?

grenfellIt has been more than three years and yet the families and friends of those who lost lives, were injured and lost their homes in the atrocity that occurred at Grenfell Tower are still a long way from seeing any conclusion to the public inquiry.

The second phase of the inquiry, on hold since March owing to the Covid-19 outbreak, had recommenced during July and has now adjourned again for its ‘summer break’. The first phase of the inquiry established that it was the external cladding panels that were the ‘primary cause’ of the rapid fire spread and that their use breached building regulations.

The fact it took the inquiry over two years to establish what has seemed clear and obvious to many who have heard the accounts of those at the scene and seen the horrendous footage of the fire is testament to the glacial speed with which this inquiry is taking place.

Nevertheless, having established it was the external cladding, phase two of the inquiry has been set to look at the ‘wider context’, not the social and economic one, but one that determines how this material, that has now been branded as in breach of building regulations, was used on the tower’s ‘refurbishment’ in the first place. This is the battle of the blame game, where all parties involved, from the government, to the Tenants’ Management Organisation, to the contractor, the architects and other subcontractors are doing their best to avoid culpability.

In a case where 72 people lost their lives, over 70 were injured, hundreds lost their homes, some of whom are still waiting to be permanently rehoused, and in circumstances where over 450 buildings are today clad in the same material as Grenfell, one would expect a faster pace to the proceedings. However, as readers of this journal are all to likely to know, this is an inquiry being run by the deft hand of the British state – an inquiry intended to draw out the proceedings, to obscure the real systemic problems, to spread the blame onto the lower rungs of the corporate ladder and to result in token changes to the status quo that can be dressed up as having, as a consequence of Grenfell, delivered justice, as having learnt the necessary lessons and duly rectified the system.

Despite that, what is clear from the inquiry so far is that, within the evidence being heard, the ingrained systemic problems of how development proceeds under capitalism can nevertheless be pointed out. It is exposing the priorities that drive development, and much can be gleaned about how that penetrates every part of the process – not only the cost cutting in the choice of material but also the involvementof the private sector in establishing the very standards that are used to approve those materials for use.

‘Value engineering’: the cheaper option

The inquiry so far has established that at Grenfell the cladding that caused the spread: aluminium composite material (ACM), was used as a replacement for the originally-specified zinc cladding. This was a consequence of ‘value engineering’.

Value engineering: what a phrase! It is one of those phrases, like ‘mobility pool’ to describe the unemployed, that attempts to soften and cover up the hard truth that it is really at play. Value engineering is nothing more than finding a cheaper material or method, in effect cutting corners and saving money. It is a phrase that is prevalent throughout the construction industry.

The recladding project at Grenfell was no different to the norm. No sooner had the local authority planners approved the plans for the refurbishment of Grenfell than the request for a ‘radical rethink of the scope/spec…to deliver it within budget’ was made of the architects by the client Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation (KCTMO).

The original contractor, Leadbitter, had confirmed it was unable to do the work within the original budget, having priced the job at £11.2m, a figure £1.6m above KCTMO’s budget. As a result, the project went out to tender in early 2013 and it was Rydon who won the contract. Their winning bid was £9.2m, significantly lower than the two other bidders, Durkan’s £9.9m and Mulalley’s £10.4m. Two other contractors, Wates and Keepmoat, had already pulled out of the bidding process.

The financial plot thickens as the inquiry has established that both KCTMO and Rydon needed to save even more. The Tenants’ Management Organisation needed an additional £800,000 saving on the bid that Rydon had been successful with, and Rydon had got its calculations wrong and underestimated their bid by £212,000. So overall the project had to be subjected to £1m in savings. In comes the ‘value engineering’.

The council-approved plans had included zinc panels, which would have been fire-retardant, with solid metal cladding in the frame. It was a change to these panels that was highlighted as the most significant money saver. Rydon and their sub-contracted façades specialist, Harley, proposed to KCTMO using the aluminium composite material (ACM) instead.

There are no friends among thieves, and Rydon did not miss the opportunity to claw back its £212,000 when it received the quote for the change of material. The quote showed the change would save up to £576,973 yet Rydon understated this saving to KCTMO as £376,000.

When questioned about why the full savings had not been revealed to the client, Rydon’s refurbishment director Stephen Blake replied: “Change in a contract environment is a way of creating margin for a contractor. And that’s what we’ve done here.

An obscured way of saying that when the opportunity arises to get a bit more profit out of the process a contractor is going to go for it.

The result of the value engineering is that Rydon recovered its initial underestimate, while KCTMO recovered part of what it was striving for, with additional savings likely to have come from elsewhere in the project. Both parties did well out of the material change, but consigned Grenfell to becoming a fire trap.

In the summer of 2014 the local authority planners, who had previously approved the zinc panelling, rubber stamped the change to ACM cladding.

Fire strategy an afterthought

Having worked hard to find cost savings, it seems that consideration of the impact of the material change on the fire strategy of the building was hardly addressed at all.

The inquiry has heard from Simon Lawrence, the contract manager at Rydon, that he assumed the detail of the fire strategy would be handled by the architecture firm Studio E and Harley Façades. He also thought Building Control, who sign off construction projects when compliant, would pick up any mistakes.

Bruce Sounes, the lead architect at Studio E, admitted he had little idea of the risks associated with the products being used. Studio E, according to Sounes, had not previously been involved in high-rise overcladding of occupied buildings. He gave evidence stating that “Until the night of the fire I had no knowledge that the products came in different varieties of core,” some of which are more flammable.

Stephanie Barwise QC, representing one of the bereaved survivors and the residents’ group, 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” (quoted by Richard Waite, Ella Jessel and Will Ing in ‘Studio E responsible for ACM cladding switch, inquiry hears’, Architects’ Journal, 31 January 2020).

The witnesses from Harley Façades and other sub-contractors have yet to be heard by the inquiry. What can be expected of these witnesses is likely to be the same avoidance of culpability.

Subcontracting results in lack of responsibility

It is generally the case that on large developments, housebuilding being no exception, extensive subcontracting has become common practice. The main contractor focuses on winning the job and then outsources the work to smaller firms and tradesmen, driving down their prices to retain as much profit as possible.

Mark Farmer, a government adviser on housebuilding, has pointed out that layers of competitive tendering in the supply chain apply cost pressures on smaller firms, which respond by cutting corners. He says that this model also creates a culture of ‘passing the buck’.

“’A lot of this is playing out with Grenfell in the finger-pointing and lack of ownership and accountability,’ he said. ‘Building firms used to employ their own tradesmen but no longer. Of course there are a lot of good builders out there but the people operating the final install are often so far removed from those paying for the work that they don’t feel responsible for the outcome.’

“Mr Farmer believes that the culture of cost-cutting in the industry has left a legacy of poor-quality homes that could result in another tragedy like Grenfell.

“‘Unfortunately lives are at stake,’ he said. ‘We have a legacy of building stock that was built the same way that Grenfell was refurbished. There is no point kidding ourselves, much of the industry’s poor performance has yet to be uncovered’” (Andrew Ellson, ‘Grenfell Tower fire exposes culture of bad building, The Times, 4 August 2020).

Mr Farmer went on to stress that the “industry is dominated by cheapest tendering, which creates a race to the bottom. Problems such as structural issues will only emerge over time. We need to urgently change how we deliver new buildings or we’re just piling up problems for the future.”

Changing how new buildings are delivered to avoid the cheapest tendering in a system where the profit motive is king is like asking a leopard to change its spots. The reason for development under capitalism is not primarily to fulfil a need but to extract a profit. House builders are not building the thousands of houses needed by those on low incomes: they are focused on building houses that will turn the most profit.

Mr Farmer is right to highlight the problems but will need to look further than just a call for urgent change within this system. Indeed, it is not just the procurement process and value engineering that is a problem under capitalism: Grenfell is also drawing out the issues of deregulation and the interests of private companies in the process.

ACM cladding – a death trap

In relation to Grenfell, what seems clear is that, while all the parties involved are trying to pass the buck of responsibility, the very real consideration of fire safety had been overlooked at worst and underplayed at best. This was further compounded by Rydon’s dismissal in 2014 of Exova, the expert fire consultancy, that had until then been engaged in the design process. Simon Lawrence stated when questioned on the lack of specialist fire consultant that Rydon felt “comfortable with the risk” of overcladding Grenfell Tower, as it had done such work before on social housing blocks. Plus, he said, it was using “what we believed to be a competent specialist sub-contractor.

He said previous projects included several towers on the Chalcots estate in Swiss Cottage and Ferrier Point in Newham, both in London. Rydon had used Grenfell-style combustible aluminium composite material panels on those homes too” (Robert Booth, ‘Grenfell firm took some of cladding savings for itself, inquiry told’, The Guardian, 20 July 2020).

Indeed, ACM cladding had been used on hundreds of high-rise buildings before Grenfell, all of which will have obtained planning permission, met Building Regulations and passed Building Control. It was only after Grenfell that the government stated ACM cladding was in breach of Building Begulations. Prior to that it had not been so explicit in condemning the use of ACM cladding on high-rise.

It was only after Grenfell and the death of 72 people that the 456 high-rise buildings clad in ACM across England, including Rydon’s previous developments at Chalcots and Ferrier, have been targeted for remediation. As a consequence of Grenfell, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) announced in May 2018 the provision of £400m to fund remediation of ACM clad high-rise in the social housing sector in England, with an additional £200m announced for the private housing sector in May 2019. As of June 2020, however, only 149 of the ACM-claD 456 high-rise buildings have been fully remediated according to the national Audit Office. There are 140 buildings where remediation was not finished, and an astounding 167 where work had not yet begun.

Reversal of building regulations

How did ACM cladding become a material used on Grenfell and so many buildings across the country?

This question is one that carries a level of complexity in terms of the legal standing. This is not least because the official government guidance was drafted loosely enough to result in a large part of the industry considering that to use a material which has been shown to be deadly was nevertheless entirely legal.

In a comprehensive article by Inside Housing, reference is made to the evidence given in 2014 by Tony Enright, a fire safety engineer, to an Australian committee investigating a fire linked to a similar material. He highlights that: “A kilogram of polyethylene is like about one-and-a-bit, one-and-a-half litres of petrol. If you look at a one metre by one metre square section [of cladding] that will have about three kilograms, the equivalent of about five litres of petrol” (quoted by Peter Apps, ‘The paper trail: the failure of building regulations’, 23 March 2018).

The article goes on to explain that after the Grenfell fire, the government tested the panels which failed with every combination of insulation it was tested with. “In the specific combination used on Grenfell, flames ripped through a nine metre rig in less than 10 minutes. ‘Inside Housing’ has seen unreleased video footage of this testing and it is horrifying.”

While information about the fire risk of AMC cladding was known and there had also been other instances of high-rise fires, this had not resulted in the material being banned for use in Britain.In fact, the opposite has happened.

In 1992 the Building Regulations Approved Document B had banned combustible materials entirely. Ironically it was after a fatal fire at Garnock Court in Irvine, Scotland, in 1999 that the regulations were reviewed and that position was first weakened. Now, instead of banning materials, the regulations are performance-based. These set requirements that a material has to meet under certain conditions for its use to be approved. Herein lies the uncertainty and the opportunity for the plastics industry.

With the question of fire safety there are two elements to the section within the Building Regulations Part B on the external fire spread. In the part of of the approved document relating specifically to cladding, the use of ACM is acceptable, while in the other part, relating (among other things) to the insulation of external walls, it is not.

The layer of insulation that was behind the cladding, a product made by Celotex, has been described by the detective superintendent Fiona McCormack, who is overseeing the criminal investigation into the fire, as being “more flammable than the cladding”.

So on Grenfell Tower there was an equivalent of a layer of petrol holding up a thicker layer of petrol behind, and both of these were approved by government Building Regulations not only on Grenfell but on hundreds of other buildings.

Industry standards led by private companies

The Building Regulations approval of the use of Celotex is where the industry standards are really exposed. The inquiry has yet to hear evidence on this section, which will be covered in module two of the eight module second phase. Until that evidence is heard we shall not know for sure how they will try to cover up the involvement of the plastic companies in determining government policy. What we can do now, however, is to highlight what is known.

Under the approved Building Regulations Part B, the use of insulation like Celotex has become widespread. Celotex insulation is made from a plastic called polyisocyanurate and does not meet the standard of ‘limited combustibility’.

The 2005 Building Regulation change known as BS 8414, which was made after the Garnock Court fire, introduced the testing of materials,. This testing was to be carried out by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a former government national laboratory that was privatised in 1997. The private company BRE were not only involved in advising the government on the changes to the building regulations in 2005 which in effect reintroduced the use of combustibles in the building industry, but in fact it organised all the internal meetings and processed all the consultation responses.

At the time of the inquiry into Garnock Court fire, the BRE had been developing these large-scale tests which were to be the basis of BS 8414. The BRE charges around £15,000 per test, the results of which are kept secret and released only at the manufacturer’s discretion. The BRE’s motivation for promoting the changes in the building regulations are certainly highly questionable.

Other sections of the private sector have also been involved in informing policy. The pressures of climate change and the requirement to meet certain carbon emission targets have resulted in a move to improve the thermal performance of buildings. This has seen the plastics industry rapidly step into this apparent breach with their plastic-based insulation.

Celotex is one of ten companies ‘invited’ onto a Green Deal committee, run by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), to come up with ways to push more insulation into homes. Another three of those ten companies were also from the plastics industry lobby group.

Celotex technical director Rob Warren was a leading committee member who made his intentions clear on a now-deleted company web page. Under the heading ‘Celotex enter government,’ he said his position on the DECC committee meant he was ‘working inside government’ to ‘shape this critical policy enabling the insulation industry to maximise the benefits.’ Construction expert Simon Hay who was also on the committee told us he was aware of the agenda: ‘The point from the insulation companies was that they were going to sell a lot more insulation,’ he said.

“A few years later Celotex revealed that the rules the plastics industry helps to write are key to company profits. Trade magazine Urethanes Technology International reported in 2015 that Warren had told them regulatory change was the ‘greatest driver’ of plastic insulation sales. Without new regulations he was reported as saying: ‘You cannot give insulation away and the public are not really interested’” (Gerard Tubb, and Nick Stylianou, ‘Grenfell, Britain’s fire safety crisis’, Sky News, 4 June 2018).

Warren made it abundantly clear. Weaker regulations that open the door for the use of combustible materials in the building fabric was good for business. Any discussion about fire safety, however, was not. This is aptly demonstrated in the government’s 2012 Green Deal launch report ‘Opportunities for Industry’, which contains 126 mentions of ‘cost’ and 119 of ‘saving’ but nothing at all about fire safety.

What continues to be clear through the inquiry is that Grenfell was no blameless tragedy; it was most certainly a criminal case of negligence that could and should have been avoided. Grenfell suffered from being in the wrong place in the eyes of the haves and needing to be covered up to hide the have nots. When finance dictates, the lives of workers are the furthest from consideration.

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