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Grenfell firms 'may have known two years before fire that cladding could fail', inquiry told

Companies appearing at the Grenfell Tower public inquiry have been warned not to refute blame for the fire by pointing the finger in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Firms that revamped Grenfell Tower knew the planned cladding system would fail if exposed to fire two years before the disaster, disclosed emails have suggested.

A public inquiry into the 2017 tragedy heard on Tuesday that email exchanges in March 2015 revealed acknowledgements that a proposed cladding system would fail if exposed to fire.

In emails disclosed to the inquiry, designers, contractors and fire safety consultants were said to have “expressly foreseen” the risk that would lead to a rapidly spreading fire, such as the one which killed 72 people and destroyed the high-rise block.

The inquiry’s chief lawyer has warned companies not to refute blame for the fire by pointing the finger in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”.

Main contractor Rydon, external wall subcontractor Harley Facades, refurbishment architects Studio E and fire inspectors Exova are alleged to have known the proposed cladding for which the 129-flat tower was to be encased would burn and fall off if exposed to external flames.

Email exchanges from March 2015 were introduced to the inquiry on Tuesday by Craig Orr QC, counsel for Celotex, which supplied the insulation used in the renovation of the 24-storey block.

Messages written on a construction wall near Grenfell Tower in west London. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is a public inquiry into the fire which killed 72 people and destroyed Grenfell Tower in June 2017. It was ordered by Prime Minister Theresa May on the day following the fire. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

They arose as a result of a debate with building control about whether cavity barriers or fire-stops were required, he said.

In an internal Exova email on March 31, a Mr Pearson sent a message to a Mr Ashton, saying if “significant flames are ejected from the windows, this would lead to failure of the cladding system...”

In another message, a Mr Crawford of Studio E was told by Mr Ashton of Exova that “it is difficult to see how a fire-stop would stay in place in the event of a fire where external flaming occurred as this would cause the zinc cladding to fail”.

In his reply, Mr Crawford said: “This was my point as well - metal cladding always burns and falls off, hence fire stopping is usually just to the back of the cladding line.”

Mr Crawford looped Mr Lawrence, of Rydon, into the correspondence, with Mr Lawrence replying “Excellent. That looks positive”, according to a statement submitted to the inquiry.

Earlier, in Harley Facades internal messages, managing director Ray Bailey was told by Daniel Antekell-Jones: “There is no point in ‘fire stopping’, as we all know; the ACM (aluminium composite material) will be gone rather quickly in a fire!”

In a statement, Mr Orr said: “Whilst expressed in slightly different terms, the substance of what each of Harley, Studio E, Exova and Rydon was openly acknowledging in the above emails was that the cladding would fail in the event of a fire with external flaming.

“This email exchange is also directly relevant to the claim made by Harley yesterday that they had no idea and no reason to believe that the primary materials used on the cladding façade would behave as they did on the night of the fire.

“Harley, it appears, knew that the cladding would fail, indeed would fail rather quickly.”

He said the “absence of any investigation of the fire safety risks of Reynobond PE panels” was “all the more striking” in the context of the exchanges.

Exova earlier said criticism of it is “unjustified” because it was not consulted about the combustible materials that eventually coated the building.

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The firm’s counsel Michael Douglas QC said it had been “left out” of planning discussions and had been effectively sidelined after Rydon became the main contractor in 2014.

“Exova took no part and was not involved or expected in discussions about materials to be selected for the exterior cladding”, he said.

Arconic, which made the cladding, said “it was the responsibility of others to decide whether or not to choose that product for a particular project”.

Built in 1974, the west London tower block was extensively refurbished between 2012 and 2016, during which time a cladding system using flammable aluminium composite material (ACM) panels was installed.

Both the Reynobond PE cladding panels and the CelotexRS5000 insulation were combustible and found to be a key factor in the fire’s rapid spread by acting as a source of fuel.

The second stage of the Grenfell Inquiry is considering how the high-rise block came to be covered in flammable materials.

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