Architects have not emerged well from the inquiry into the tragic fire, but they can turn this around by becoming advocates for safety, writes Peter Apps
‘It’s masquerading horsemeat as a beef lasagne, and people bought it.’ So Neil Crawford, one of the Studio E architects responsible for the design of the cladding system on Grenfell Tower, memorably told the public inquiry in March 2020.
He was describing the Celotex insulation specified for the majority of that system and the misleading way in which it had been marketed – presented as suitable for use on high-rise buildings when it was actually anything but.
Since he made that statement, the continuring inquiry into the 2017 fire has revealed a scandal that actually makes the horsemeat saga feel a little tame.
Take Celotex. Its staff plainly knew that the material – a plastic called polyisocyanurate – was combustible. ‘Do we take the view that our product realistically shouldn’t be used behind most cladding panels because in the event of a fire it would burn?’ wrote one staff member in an internal email in autumn 2013.
Despite this, the firm’s management was adamant that it should pursue efforts to snatch a chunk of the high-rise market from its rival Kingspan, which at the time had something close to a monopoly. In early 2014, Celotex sought to pass a ‘large-scale test’ that would open the door for the use of its product at height. The first time it tried, it failed. Undeterred, it tried again.
Text messages between Kingspan employees show them joking about misleading product testing. 'Alls we do is lie in here,' wrote one.
This time it installed a layer of fire-resisting magnesium oxide board behind the exterior cladding, designed to help stop it cracking. With these reinforcements, it passed the test.
But Celotex then decided to obscure the use of these boards from its marketing. Instead, it secured a certificate from Local Authority Building Control which implied the product could be used in buildings above 18m in a range of systems. Asked if this was ‘intentional, deliberate and dishonest’, the firm’s former product manager, Jon Roper, said: ‘I believe so, yes.’
Celotex then produced marketing that bluntly said the material was ‘acceptable for use’ on high-rise buildings when this claim was never true outside the specific cladding build-up used in the test.
And Celotex’s story is the tip of the iceberg. We have had further revelations about Kingspan, which include the fact that it obtained the fire rating of Class 0 by testing only the foil-facing on its insulation and not the insulation itself.
Text messages between employees of the firm show them joking about this. 'Alls we do is lie in here,' wrote one.
The cladding company Arconic, meanwhile, spent 13 years before Grenfell hiding testing that showed its panels – containing a core of polyethylene which was as combustible as petrol – burned 10 times as quickly and released seven times as much heat when bent into a ‘cassette’ shape. They were bent into this configuration on Grenfell Tower.
In the midst of this, it seems legitimate to ask what possible chance architects have at making their buildings safe? It is a fair question. But if the response were simply to throw up our hands in despair, then the opportunity this once-in-a-lifetime inquiry provides for change would be lost.
The truth it has exposed is that the architects who worked on refurbishing Grenfell Tower gave themselves no chance. The firm had no experience of high-rise residential projects and precious little of cladding in general. Its senior partners spent crucial stages of the job focused on the liquidation and rebirth of the firm.
And crucially, those who drew up the plans neither knew the specific rules around cladding nor troubled to find them out. Instead, they trusted others down the line (most pertinently the specialist cladding subcontractor) to check their work.
They also comforted themselves that what they were doing went along with what most of the industry was doing. If using combustible insulation on high-rise buildings was so common then surely it couldn’t be wrong?
Half-understood concepts (‘it chars rather than burns’) replaced serious fire engineering principles, while the objective of achieving aspirational u-values left fire safety a secondary consideration.
There was also the revelation that some of the CPD-training given to the firm was actually provided by Celotex.
With all of this, Studio E found itself at the mercy of the word of sales people who were always going to use that weakness to bolster their order books. This, sadly, is a symptom of what has happened elsewhere to give us the building safety crisis.
But it didn’t have to be like this. Had Studio E known, for example, that the fire classification of Class 0 was irrelevant to the use of insulation on high rise, it would have been less likely to be suckered by marketing that placed this classification front and centre.
Ultimately, what the Grenfell Tower Inquiry calls on those in the construction sector to do is mistrust each other
Had it known that a large-scale test only applied to the exact specifications of the system tested, it would have been able to see the spurious marketing claim that the product was acceptable for use on high rises in general for what it was.
Neither of these are difficult concepts to understand, and both were available on a plain reading of the relevant guidance.
Ultimately, and sadly, what the Grenfell Tower Inquiry calls on those in the construction sector to do is mistrust each other. But that can be healthy. If you expect sales people to come bearing snake oil and subcontractors to duck and dive and slice off the top, you are far less likely to be caught out when they do.
Architects can play a key role in an improved construction sector. Within the system, they should be the advocates for safety in the same way that they are for aesthetics and sustainability.
The profession should take as much pride in the thought that everyone can leave one of their buildings in an emergency as they currently place on their wise use of space. The fact that a wall would never propagate a fire should be seen as illustrious an achievement as designing one that delivers perfect energy efficiency.
Most importantly, though, they need to be the ones in the kitchen who can tell the horsemeat from the beef and have the pride to ensure the former never ends up in their lasagne.
Peter Apps is deputy editor at Inside Housing and has followed the Grenfell Tower Inquiry from the start