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Grenfell cladding manufacturer offered combustible product unless ‘forced’ not to, inquiry hears

By 23/09/2020No Comments

He added in a 2015 email that “PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to FR as a matter of urgency” but concluded this view was “technical and anti-commercial”.

In England, at the time of the Grenfell refurbishment, ACM cladding panels with a PE core were required to meet the standard of Class 0 – a rating widely understood to have been too low and which the government had been warned to toughen.

Arconic had a certificate saying its Reynobond panels achieved a Class 0 rating, although the small print confirmed this related only to the FR version of the panel.

The email revelation came as Geof Blades (pictured above) was questioned about his role in the refurbishment – Blades was the sales director at CEP Architectural Facades, the firm which cut the panels to size for Grenfell Tower and sold them on.

He had previously said he was unaware an ‘FR’ version of the panel existed, but accepted after being shown this email that he was.

A further email showed that following a fire in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in May 2013, Arconic’s UK sales manager Debbie French emailed CEP to explain the firm supplied “both PE and FR core”. She said it “can control and understand what core is being used in all projects” and “offer the right Reynobond specification including the core”.

“Why didn’t you, having got this email, say [to the Grenfell design team] there’s been a fire in the UAE, we are talking about ACM for Grenfell, we have got to be careful that we get the right core for this building?” asked counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC.

“You put forward Reynobond when you weren’t asked for it, that’s right, isn’t it?” asked Mr Millett

“I can’t answer that,” he replied.

“Do you think you should have?” asked Mr Millett.

“With hindsight, yes,” Mr Blades replied.

The inquiry heard that Mr Blades had first been contacted by the architects in spring 2012, during the very early stages of the refurbishment of the tower, to discuss “an appropriate cladding system”.

He then met with the architects, bringing Ms French from Arconic along in October 2012.

He was asked to provide quotes for the work in January 2013, under a specification listing ‘VM Zinc’ as the cladding product.

But instead, he based his quotes on a Reynobond PE product painted to give it the appearance of zinc.

“You put forward Reynobond when you weren’t asked for it, that’s right, isn’t it?” asked Mr Millett.

“Yes, at this point,” replied Mr Blades, explaining that he felt he was offering an option that would be “suitable” for the job.

He accepted that he had “introduced” the cladding product to the job but denied he had “recommended” it. He said he believed it was acceptable for high-rises due to its ‘Class 0’ rating, but had not made any particular checks.

When asked why he had not approached firms other than Arconic that produced ACM, he described it as “courtesy”, since the two companies had already been speaking about the job.

“From the documents we’ve seen so far, you were aware by this stage that Reynobond 55 came in an ‘FR’ [which] was suitable for Grenfell. And I’ve got to put it to you that this was something of a missed opportunity?” said Mr Millett

Later, it emerged that when a mock-up was installed on the tower in summer 2014 ahead of the full works, Arconic delivered and installed FR-rated panels. Mr Blades said he thought this was simply because they were “quicker to dispatch”.

Despite this, the standard PE version was still used for the full cladding job. “Did you think to explore with them [Arconic] that since Grenfell Tower was a building in excess of 18m you should actually be suggesting FR core to the client?” asked Mr Millett.

“I didn’t and I don’t believe CEP did. At this stage in the project, we were just working to other people’s requirements,” said Mr Blades.

“From the documents we’ve seen so far, you were aware by this stage that Reynobond 55 came in an ‘FR’ [which] was suitable for Grenfell. And I’ve got to put it to you that this was something of a missed opportunity?” said Mr Millett.

“With hindsight, yes,” said Mr Blades.

Mr Blades was also shown emails – already disclosed by the inquiry – where, following the selection of the Reynobond cladding panels for a mock-up on the tower, Ms French wrote: “Thank you for your hard work and perseverance in putting Reynobond forward. I think I owe you [Mark Harris of Harley Facades] and Geof [Mr Blades] lunch or dinner at some point.”

“All I can say to this is the three companies acted very professionally and I was never taken out for lunch by anybody,” he said. He accepted that she was “grateful” for introducing the firm to the job.

Earlier, he had been asked if his relationship with Ms French was “informal and friendly”, with emails showing him referring to her as “Debbs” and writing “I will always believe YOU”. He said it was “a professional, business relationship”.

“Asked at the end of the day if he would have done anything differently during the project, he answered that he would have ‘looked more deeply into the documents that were made available’, particularly the certification for the cladding panels”

Asked whether Arconic had ever made him aware of the testing showing the panels achieved extremely low fire ratings in ‘cassette’ form, Mr Blades said: “Not to my knowledge.”

He said if he had known, “somebody at CEP would have addressed the situation with Arconic to overcome that problem”.

Earlier, he claimed that before the fire he was “not consciously aware” that the polythene in the core of the panel was plastic and did not know it was combustible.

Asked at the end of the day if he would have done anything differently during the project, he answered that he would have “looked more deeply into the documents that were made available”, particularly the certification for the cladding panels.

Shown this document, he said he had been unaware that the test pass for Class 0 to which it referred related only to the ‘FR’ version of the panels.

The inquiry continues.

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