A picture of an enormous corporate scandal has emerged at the Grenfell Tower inquiry to little fanfare over the last three weeks. The mammoth inquiry has been slowly going through the evidence surrounding the build-up to the fire, which killed 72 people in June 2017. Until November, it had been examining the fitting of the deadly cladding system to the walls of the building. What the inquiry revealed was dispiriting but predictable: pennies were pinched, no one in an enormous chain of construction professionals took responsibility for key safety decisions, and the external oversight of their actions was almost non-existent. In recent weeks though, the tone of the inquiry changed, and the revelations have become considerably more startling.
Officially, the inquiry has been examining the testing, marketing and sale of the combustible plastic materials which were attached to the walls of the tower, and which burnt with such devastating effect on that terrible summer night three years ago.
This chiefly means three products: the actual cladding panels (thin aluminium sheets bonded to a core of polyethylene, a plastic with similar properties to solid petrol) and two forms of combustible foam insulation which were fitted behind it.
These materials were made and sold by companies which are huge global players. The cladding came from the French arm of Arconic, a Pennsylvania-based giant with £5.4 billion in global turnover and roots which trace back to the historic Aluminium Company of America. The insulation was sold by Celotex, a medium-sized UK company which is part of the French multinational Saint Gobain, and Kingspan, an Irish giant with more than £3 billion in annual turnover and almost 14,000 employees.
What has emerged is evidence which suggests each of these firms were aware their products posed serious fire risks, but this was concealed from both regulators and the market so they could be sold for use on high rises.
Arconic realised its polyethylene-cored cladding had a horrendous reaction to fire following French tests in 2005, where it burned fiercely and obtained a basement ranking of Class E. Despite this, Arconic continued to market it as the much safer Class B (based on an earlier certification obtained using limited test data which had persuaded a respected British certification body, the British Board of Agrément, to produce the certificate apparently confirming this).
In a string of internal emails, technical members of its staff agonised about the morality of continuing to sell the ‘dangerous’ product. ‘It’s hard to make a note about this because we are not clean,’ said one in 2010. In 2015, Claude Wehrle, a senior member of Arconic’s technical team, wrote: ‘PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to [a more fire-resistant panel] as a matter of urgency…This opinion is technical and anti-commercial, it seems.’
Nonetheless, internal emails record the firm resolving to continue to sell in countries with ‘national regulations [which] are not as restrictive.’ One of these countries was the UK, which had failed to tighten rules covering cladding on high rises following two previous fires in 1999 and 2009.
The story for the insulation is a similarly miserable tale. In 2006, a UK ban on the use of combustible insulation on high rises was rescinded, as long as it had passed a large-scale fire test (a loophole the industry trade body lobbied for).
The Irish company Kingspan’s insulation passed one of these tests, which took place on a fake wall made with non-combustible cement. This test pass permitted its use on tall buildings, but only in an exact replica of the system tested. Despite this, the firm marketed its insulation as ‘suitable for use on high-rise buildings’. An unforgivably naive market of architects and contractors then began merrily specifying it for a wide range of uses well beyond its original test.
Behind the scenes, the picture was even worse. After the test was passed in 2005, Kingspan altered the chemical composition of the insulation so that it was no longer the same product, according to one former employee.
When retested in 2007 as part of a different system it failed combustion tests dramatically. Kingspan has argued this was not a consequence of its product, but the firm’s own internal report warned the new insulation had performed ‘very differently’ — burning on its own and continuing after the test fire was put out.
But the market was not told of these findings, nor that the product had changed. In fact, when the country’s largest private building control firm, the National House Building Council (NHBC) threatened to reject the product due to fears over its combustibility in the mid 2010s, Kingspan called in the lawyers and threatened it with defamation. The NHBC backed down.
When a firm of facade engineers also raised questions about its suitability for a project, internal emails show Kingspan’s technical manager Philip Heath (who remains employed by the firm) saying Kingspan would ‘sue the arse of them [sic]’.
Celotex, a smaller firm, was envious of Kingspan’s monopoly of the high-rise market and sought to catch up in the early 2010s. By May 2014, its insulation had also passed a test, also using a non-combustible cladding panel, and it too began to market its product as safe for use on high rises. But the test was not as it seemed: fire resisting boards were used around the temperature monitors that record the pass or fail, distorting the result.
The report of the test from the independent Building Research Establishment (a national building science facility dating back to world war one, but privatised in 1997) made no reference to these boards. The evidence from Celotex witnesses so far suggests the BRE staff member who wrote the report may have known about the boards, which were visible in one photograph that Celotex sought to remove, but did not mention them.
Jon Roper, the 22-year-old graduate who was in charge of Celotex’s effort to break into the market for tall buildings, told the inquiry of his regret that he acted so dishonestly, but said he had no one to turn to, with the firm’s senior management united behind this course of action.
He was able to secure a certificate from another independent body, the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) which said the insulation was suitable for use on high rises. The LABC appears to have written its certificate simply by copy and pasting an email written by Celotex’s Jon Roper, even including the same typo on the certificate.
Celotex then provided this certificate to the team that refurbished Grenfell — a major target for the sales team, as one of the first high-rise projects it would ‘win’ for its product. Celotex even inquired about using the tower as a case study for the suitability of its product for high rises. So it has turned out, although not in the way the company hoped.
The three firms involved in the Grenfell cladding have all denied responsibility for the disaster: Celotex emphasises that it had no design responsibility, and that compliance was a matter for the professionals who refurbished the tower. It said it repeated the allegedly distorted test without discrepancy in 2018. Kingspan says it did not pursue the Grenfell Tower job, knew nothing of the specific design and has now passed numerous tests with K15 insulation which supported its historic marketing claims, as well as its occasional failures. Arconic says that its cladding should not have been used on the tower in the way it was and has pointed to other critical issues with the installation, such as the use of insulation and inadequate fire barriers. But there are 72 grieving families who will want further answers from all those involved.
This crisis has also now spread far beyond one tower in west London. The country currently has an enormous problem after dangerous cladding and insulation materials have been installed on tall buildings across the country. Thousands of people are trapped in their homes, unable to sell and facing crippling bills for repairs. More fires and more deaths are by no means impossible.
The picture the inquiry is painting is not yet complete. But it is already starting to look like one of the great corporate scandals of our time.
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Peter Apps is deputy editor at Inside Housing