Grenfell Tower: construction bosses’ contempt for workers’ lives laid bare

Despite its best efforts, the glacial inquiry has let slip a series of unpalatable truths about the practices and motivations of the construction industry.

Lalkar writers

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Expecting a system where the profit motive is king to change how new buildings are delivered so as to avoid the cheapest tendering is like asking a leopard to change its spots.

Lalkar writers

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It has been more than three years since the Grenfell Tower inferno, and yet the families and friends of those who lost lives, were injured and lost their homes in the atrocity 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, recommenced during July but 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 that it took the inquiry over two years to establish what seemed clear and obvious to many who heard the accounts of those at the scene and saw the horrendous footage of the fire is testament to the glacial speed at which this inquiry is moving.

Nevertheless, having established that the external cladding was to blame, phase two of the inquiry has been tasked with looking at the ‘wider context’ – not the social and economic one, but one that determines how this material, which has now been branded as being in breach of building regulations, came to be 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, the contractor and the architects to the myriad subcontractors – are doing their best to avoid culpability.

In a case where 72 people lost their lives and over 70 more were injured, where 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 more urgent pace to the proceedings.

However, as readers of this journal are all to likely to realise, 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 that led to the fire, to spread the blame onto the lower rungs of the corporate ladder, and to result only in a few tokenistic changes to the status quo that can be dressed up as having, as a consequence of Grenfell, delivered ‘justice’, and as having learnt the necessary lessons and duly rectified the system.

Despite all the above, what is clear from the inquiry so far is that, even within the evidence being heard, the ingrained systemic problems in how development is carried out under capitalism can nevertheless be pinpointed. The inquiry is exposing the priorities that drive development in our society, and much can be gleaned about how those priorities penetrate every part of the process – not only cost-cutting in the choice of materials used, but also the involvement of 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 a euphemism for 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 that secured it. The company’s winning bid was £9.2m, significantly lower than that of the two other bidders, who were Durkan (£9.9m) and Mulalley (£10.4m). Two other contractors, Wates and Keepmoat, had already pulled out of the bidding process.

The financial plot thickened as the inquiry established that both KCTMO and Rydon needed to save even more. The tenants’ management organisation needed an additional £800,000 saving on top of Rydon’s successful bid, while Rydon had got its calculations wrong and underestimated its bid by £212,000. So overall the project had to be subjected to £1m in savings. Enter ‘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 its subcontracted 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. The quote from Harley showed that the change of material 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 this bit of value engineering was 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 turned Grenfell into a fire trap in the process.

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 heard from Simon Lawrence, the contract manager at Rydon, that he had assumed that the detail of the fire strategy would be handled by the architecture firm Studio E and Harley Facades. He also thought Building Control, which signs off construction projects’ compliance, would pick up any mistakes.

Bruce Sounes, the lead architect at Studio E, admitted that he had little idea of the risks associated with the products being used. Studio E, according to Sounes, had not previously been involved in the overcladding of occupied high-rise buildings. In his evidence, he stated: “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 bereaved residents, 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.” (Studio E responsible for ACM cladding switch, inquiry hears by Richard Waite, Ella Jessel and Will Ing, Architects Journal, 31 January 2020)

The witnesses from Harley Facades and other subcontractors have yet to be heard by the inquiry. Expect more attempts to avoid any 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.’” (Grenfell Tower fire exposes culture of bad building by Andrew Ellson, 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.”

Expecting a system where the profit motive is king to change how new buildings are delivered so as to avoid the cheapest tendering 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. Housebuilders are not building the thousands of homes 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 he will need to look further than just a call for urgent change within this system. Indeed, it is not only the procurement process and value engineering that are a problem under capitalism: Grenfell is also drawing out the issues of deregulation and the influence of private companies over the planning 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 in 2014 by Rydon’s dismissal of Exova, the expert fire consultancy, which had until then been engaged in the design process.

Simon Lawrence stated when questioned on the absence of a 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, the company was using “what we believed to be a competent specialist subcontractor”.

“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.” (Grenfell firm took some of cladding savings for itself, inquiry told by Robert Booth, 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 decided that ACM cladding was in breach of building regulations. Before that it had not been explicit in condemning the use of ACM cladding on high-rise blocks.

Since the death of 72 people at Grenfell, 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 and Local Government (MHCLG) announced in May 2018 the provision of £400m to fund remediation of ACM-clad high-rises 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 456 high-rise buildings in question have been fully remediated, according to the National Audit Office. There are 140 buildings where remediation has not been finished, and an astounding 167 where work has not yet begun.

Building regulations reversal

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

This question is not easy to answer as far as the legal position is concerned – not least because the official government guidance was drafted loosely enough to mean that a large part of the construction industry was able to consider that using a material that had been shown to be deadly was nevertheless entirely legal.

In a comprehensive article in Inside Housing, reference was 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 pointed out: “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.” (The paper trail: the failure of building regulations by Peter Apps, 23 March 2018)

The article went on to explain that after the Grenfell fire, the government tested the panels that had failed with various combinations of insulation. “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. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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 the position was first weakened. Now, instead of banning materials, the regulations were performance-based. These set requirements that a material had 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 the approved document relating specifically to cladding, the use of ACM is deemed 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 put behind the cladding at Grenfell, a product made by Celotex, has been described by 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 the 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 Celotex is where 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 won’t know for sure how the various parties concerned 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, which 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 now private BRE was not only involved in advising the government on changes to the building regulations in 2005 which in effect reintroduced the use of combustibles in the building industry, but it actually organised all the internal meetings and processed all the consultation responses.

At the time of the inquiry into Garnock Court, the BRE had been developing the 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 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. The plastics industry has stepped rapidly into this apparent breach to promote plastic-based insulation as the ‘solution’.

Celotex was 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 webpage. 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.’” (Grenfell, Britain’s fire safety crisis by Gerard Tubb, and Nick Stylianou, Sky News, 4 June 2018)

Warren made it abundantly clear: weaker regulations that opened the door to the use of combustible materials in the fabric of our buildings 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 as the inquiry progresses 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.