The Grenfell Tower public inquiry has revealed a catalogue of horrors in the construction trade, implicating manufacturers of plastic insulation and cladding that’s widely used to meet regulations focused on reducing carbon emissions and promoting energy efficiency.
Barristers have testified that the companies involved viewed the fire safety certificates for their products as marketing tools to be changed at will if they could secure a sale.
Karim Mussilhy from the Grenfell Survivors Group has written in the Guardian newspaper that “the fire at Grenfell Tower was no accident – it was the result of years of neglect, deregulation and corporate greed.”
The materials are widely deployed, with hundreds of thousands of homes wrapped in flammable materials made by Celotex, Kingspan, Arconic, and now unsellable. Meanwhile these companies continue to operate, and have not yet been fined.
These homeowners are facing bills of up to £100,000 ($179,000) for repairs. Most can’t afford this and so remain trapped in their dangerous accommodation.
Yet in February government ministers voted against a motion that would protect them from the cost of replacing the flammable cladding panels.
What has the public inquiry into the 2017 fire revealed about how this happened?
Reports from The Guardian reported clear denials of culpability.
“The three companies strongly dispute the claims against them. In its opening statement, Arconic said the main fault lay with those responsible for the refurbishment. Its employees were in no way “seeking to exploit the UK market place”, it said, as it pointed out that the insulation, made by others, appeared to have caught fire first.
Celotex said Arconic had misled the market about the safety of its panels. It also accused the construction professionals of failing to follow building regulations, and the council’s building control officer of incompetence. Kingspan blamed Arconic’s panels and said the outcome of the fire would have been no different if non-combustible insulation had been used.
The Grenfell Tower fire
The Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people and destroyed the building, a 24-storey residential tower block with 127 flats and 227 bedrooms in North Kensington, London, on 14 June 2017.
The Grenfell Tower public inquiry into the tragedy was ordered by Prime Minister Theresa May on the day following the fire. It is in two parts. Phase 1 addressed the events on the night of the fire, and Phase 2 is currently investigating the wider circumstances.
The first stage’s conclusions, published in October 2019, said that the main reason why the fire spread was due to the aluminium composite cladding filled with polyethylene insulation that was installed on the building exterior in a 2015–2016 refurbishment, which also installed new plastic framed windows.
Phase 2 is revealing the extent of the poor practices, negligence and commercial prioritisations that led to the disaster.
Following are some highlights from the vast quantity of material pouring from the inquiry that has been extensively covered in UK media.
From The Guardian:
Arconic, which made the cladding sheets that were the main cause of the fire’s spread, obtained a certificate for its plastic-filled panels [Kingspan has issued a statement to say it’s more correct to say polyethylene-filled panel rather than plastic] on “a false premise” by supplying test reports for a more fire-retardant version of the product, lawyers for the bereaved and survivors told the inquiry.
Celotex, which made the bulk of the combustible foam insulation used, displayed a “widespread culture … of ignoring compliance”, which included distorting a full-scale fire test of its materials, the inquiry heard.
And Kingspan, which made the rest of the insulation*, carried out tests that involved either “concealing components in a manner designed to facilitate a pass and/or using materials that were not as described in the test reports,” it was claimed. Internal emails from the firm revealed it knew it was “dodgy” for it to advertise that its material could be used on tall buildings above 18 metres.
In an even more bizarre revelation, one of Kingspan’s senior technician who was responsible for safety tests on the insulation used on the Tower, had “a serious drug habit”. Ivor Meredith often fell asleep at work as a result.
Meredith held a pivotal role helping his employer sell its K-15 Kooltherm phenolic foam insulation as suitable for use on high-rise buildings by managing testing and certification.
He told the inquiry that even though the plastic-based [polyethylene-based, according to Kingspan] insulation foam burned in tests, several of which it failed, the company claimed it had limited combustibility and sold it for use on at least 240 towers in the UK. It was used on Grenfell alongside Celotex, another foam insulation.
Meredith admitted he became “embroiled in a deliberate and calculated deceit by Kingspan” over the use of test results and the inquiry heard how he had to “fabricate a story” to maintain the foam panels [insulation boards, Kingspan said] were safe to use. He complained to his boss: “We are stretching the truth.”
“I knew there we had serious holes in our information, yes,” he said. “I tried to do my best to sit on my thoughts … It was all a major headache. It was more than a major headache: it was a nightmare.”
[Kingspan has issued a statement to say: Kingspan had no role in the design of the cladding system used on Grenfell Tower, where its K15 product constituted approximately 5 per cent of the insulation used. It was used without Kingspan’s knowledge in a system that was not compliant with the buildings regulations and was unsafe.]
And in the same article as above…
Kingspan has previously apologised for “process shortcomings during the period of 2005 to 2014” including that “certain statements made in K15 product literature and advice provided to customers, were not sufficiently clear or emphatic in explaining the [testing] limitations”.
It told the inquiry it did not know K15 was to be used on Grenfell and that the building regulations at the time permitted its use on tall buildings as long as the overall cladding system was compliant.
Kingspan trades in over 70 countries around the world. Poor behaviour by Kingspan executives have forced the resignation of one of Kingspan’s managing directors, Peter Wilson.
Kingspan has issued “an unequivocal apology for the historical shortcomings in its testing and marketing of K15, and for the unacceptable conduct which has emerged.” It has apologised
“unreservedly once again for these shortcomings which are not consistent with its values or its commitment to conduct its business to the highest safety standards.”
Kingspan is separate in Australia
Managing director of Kingspan Insulation Pty Ltd Scott Gibson said the Australian company he chairs is a separate entity to the Irish/UK business and runs under separate and independent governance.
“They are absolutely completely different; I am MD of the Asian Pacific not the Irish/UK business.
“In Australia the R&D and compliance manager reports to me and all of our testing for Australian products is carried out through facilities in Australia accredited through the NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities)
“The Kooltherm range in Australia is made here as is the AIR-CELL range of products.”
“We employ the highest level of governance and oversight to ensure these sort of events won’t happen in Australia”.
The $7bn a year turnover aluminium specialist sold the plastic-filled [Kingspan reports polyethylene filled is more accurate] panels for use on the apartment block in west London.
In June 2015, the company’s French subsidiary warned the polyethylene-filled (PE) aluminium panels were “flammable”, suffered from limitations “given by the smoke production and flaming droplets” and could only be used on buildings up to 12 metres.
The inquiry has already concluded that Arconic’s Reynobond 55 PE panels were the main cause of the spread of the fire.
Arconic was selling the panels in the UK on the basis they were safe for buildings over 18 metres. It had failed to update UK safety certificates after fire tests of the same panels used at Grenfell went so badly they had to be stopped, meaning the material could only be rated E for fire performance. The certificate that was consulted by the Grenfell builders claimed they reached a B classification for fire.
‘I don’t believe there was a desire to hide anything,’ said Claude Schmidt, president of the French arm of Arconic.
Arconic said: “It is not appropriate for us to comment while the inquiry is ongoing and before all evidence has been presented in phase two [of the inquiry].”
The inquiry also heard that shortly after the request from the US parent company, Claude Wehrle, the French technical director, emailed colleagues that “PE is DANGEROUS on facades, and everything should be transferred to FR [fire retardant] as a matter of urgency.”
Schmidt also told the inquiry how Arconic did nothing to stop the sale of the cladding despite two high-rise infernos in the Middle East involving similar materials sparking internal concerns.
Cladding manufacturer Arconic considered withdrawing its combustible panels from sale before the disaster after a spate of high-rise cladding fires in the Middle East but decided against it for “commercial reasons”.
Three of its technical managers went into hiding in France, rather than testify. Claude Wehrle, Peter Froehlich and Gwenaëllfe Derrendinger claimed protection from a 51 year old French blocking statute.
Protesters supporting the tower residents drove a van displaying the French red white and blue flag including an image of the burnt-out tower past the French embassy in Knightsbridge before Christmas in an effort to persuade the government to give them up.
The BRE (Building Research Establishment) Group was the UK’s national centre for research into building science until 1997 when it was privatised by the conservative government. Since then it has been required to win work from commercial clients and bid for government research contracts to secure its income.
These contracts include the provision of large-scale fire tests that mimic real-world building facades to determine whether given construction techniques are safe.
The testing methodology was written into a formal British Standard (BS 8414). Celotex and Kingspan have made wide use of these tests to secure sales.
The inquiry heard of concerns with tests for both Kingspan and Colotex products in detailed questioning of BRE burn hall manager Philip Clark.
Extensive reporting from Inside Housing covers details of the inquiry around failed test results for materials and “quite an incredible list of omissions and missed instances” around magnesium oxide boards used in fire tests.
Celotex carried out the first test on a system containing its RS5000 insulation in February 2014, resulting in a failure.
Jonathan Roper, one of the Celotex witnesses, has claimed that Mr Clark advised him that thickening the external cladding panels may help achieve a pass on the second attempt. Mr Clark said he could not recall such a conversation taking place.
Celotex passed its test at the second attempt in May 2014. But this test used secret additional magnesium oxide boards to strengthen the cladding panels – a feature declared neither in Mr Clark’s test report nor in Celotex’s later marketing of its product.
Much of the cross-examination focused on whether or not Mr Clark knew that these panels were present. Two Celotex witnesses – Mr Roper and his colleague Jamie Hayes – have said they have “no doubt” that he knew. But Mr Clark vociferously denied this.
With regard to Kingspan, Mr Clark was mainly asked about a test in March 2014 that paired the firm’s K15 insulation with high-pressure laminate cladding panels. This test was a failure due to flames exceeding the top of the rig (pictured above),
Subsequently, Kingspan used the report as evidence for reports written by fire consultancies to approve an untested system for use on a high rise (known as a desktop study).
On all 29 of these occasions, including three reports written by the BRE, the consultant missed the fact that the test was a failure. This meant Kingspan was able to use the failed test to bolster its case that its combustible product was suitable for high rises.
Grenfell Inquiry transcript Day 98, pages 131-132 questioning of BRE executive Stephen Howard who denies failed tests are a problem:
Q. You’re saying, are you, that it was a perfectly sound basis to perform a desktop study on a failed test?
A. Yes, because it’s used in conjunction with other test evidence to construct your technical justification for the acceptance of the system.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick: Can I just come in here, Mr Millett? If I ’ve understood you correctly, Mr Howard, what you’re saying is you’re just using these earlier reports for the data they contain, which is related to certain times during the test, as one can see from them, and I think you’re saying it’s irrelevant whether they went on to or would have gone on to pass or fail, you’re basically just taking the data; is that right?
A. You’re using the data from the test report for assessment purposes.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick: Yes. All right. Thank you.’
The leader of the council for Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which approved the use of the cladding on the tower, has now apologised for putting profit before people.
The hearings continue.
UPDATED: This article has been significantly reviewed and updated to reflect clarifications and amplifications of material quoted from other publications.