Architecture

Grenfell project manager misunderstood warning about ‘weak link for fire’, inquiry hears

By 23/09/2020No Comments

The project manager responsible for overseeing work on Grenfell Tower’s fatally flawed cladding system has admitted that he failed to understand a warning from a product manufacturer about a “weak link for fire” in the proposals.

Harley Facades’ Ben Bailey told the inquiry into 2017’s fire, which claimed the lives of 72 people, that he was not aware an email from a technical officer at cavity barrier firm Siderise referred to two distinct safety issues, only one of which was subsequently addressed.

Ben Bailey gives evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry on 21 September 2020

Giving evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry for a second day on Tuesday, the 30-year-old son of Harley director Ray Bailey accepted that he had not properly appreciated the detail in the 2015 warning from Siderise’s Chris Mort.

Mort mentioned he had spotted a “gap” that required some form of protection to stop fire spreading from the internal compartment of Grenfell Tower to an external cavity and flagged the issue in an email to Bailey. Mort said he expected that building control officers would have noticed the omission of cavity barriers around the windows of the proposals.

But the email also covered the fire resistance rating of other cavity barriers for the project, and Bailey told Tuesday’s hearing that he believed that when a solution had been found for the ratings the “weak link” issue had been dealt with.

Inquiry barrister Richard Millett QC asked Bailey whether he had confused two separate issues in Mort’s email as one; he replied: “Knowing what I know now, unfortunately yes.”

In a written statement to the inquiry, Siderise’s Mort said the Grenfell refurbishment plans should have had a design that protected the “weak link” he identified. He said that as a supplier, Siderise was not obliged to provide general advice about fire safety and compliance with Building Regulations.

But he added: “In this instance, I did highlight the weak link I identified. […] It was a clear error and I felt I should highlight it. In my opinion Harley and/or Building Control should have picked it up.”

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry has already heard that there was confusion at Harley over project architect Studio E’s intentions for cavity barriers around the windows of the block, which are required by Approved Document B of the Building Regulations. Freelance project designer Kevin Lamb told Thursday’s hearing he thought Studio E may have been using an alternative route to compliance to meet fire safety requirements.

Combustible aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding and combustible insulation used in the refurbishment have already been identified by the inquiry as the main causes of the spread of fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017.

But a 2018 report by chartered fire engineer and Grenfell Tower Inquiry expert witness Dr Barbara Lane said there were no fire resisting cavity barriers around the block’s windows.

She said windows were in fact surrounded by combustible materials, including the linings above and below made of Purlboard, which meant there was “disproportionately high probability” that if a fire started near a window it would spread into the cladding.

Bailey, who was 25 when he was made project manager for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, admitted earlier that he had read parts of Approved Document B of the Building Regulations but found the document – which relates to fire safety – “confusing”.

Barrister Millett raised two instances in which Bailey asked Siderise for technical advice on regulatory compliance in relation to the location of vertical firebreaks for Grenfell Tower.

“Are you able to explain how Harley, as a specialist cladding subcontractor, and you – as the project manager overseeing the installation – so lacked expertise in the placement of cavity barriers that you had to seek advice from the manufacturer?” Millett asked.

Bailey said he was “not in a technical role” and had just been “double checking”. When Millett repeated the question, Bailey replied: “No.”

Sloppy workmanship

Bailey was also asked about his supervision of subcontractor Osborne Berry, which fitted the insulation and cladding to Grenfell Tower that was part of Harley’s package for the refurbishment, led by main contractor Rydon.

QC Millett asked the project manager about his written statement to the inquiry in which he said he had been “shocked” to see photographs of the products installed as part of the refurbishment when they were published in Barbara Lane’s first report to the inquiry.

Yesterday, Bailey was shown a photograph of a Siderise horizontal cavity barrier that had been installed vertically and back-to-front. He accepted it was “sloppy” workmanship.

Lane’s 2018 report on fire safety engineering for Grenfell noted numerous problems with the installation of cavity barriers, including gaps in the barriers that contravened Siderise’s installation advice. She said the use of horizontal fire barriers the wrong way up made them “non-compliant” with Building Regulations because they had not been tested in that form.

Under questioning, Bailey acknowledged that there were some days when he had not been able to inspect Osborne Berry’s work on site and agreed the installers had been “left to get on with their job unsupervised”.

Millett asked Bailey about the training he expected Osborne Berry to give its workers. “I would imagine it was Taff and Bez training their own guys,” he replied, referring to the names by which Mark Osborne and Grahame Berry were known.

Bailey added that he had been surprised by a witness statement from Osborne stating that Osborne Berry had “no involvement in relation to the fitting of cavity barriers”. But the session heard earlier that the firm may have used the term “firebreaks” to mean cavity barriers.

Bailey told the inquiry he had conducted informal inspections of the work at Grenfell. Millett asked whether he had ever noticed any poor workmanship. “Nothing specific,” Bailey replied.

Millett asked whether it was the case that Bailey had not inspected the workmanship he reported having been shocked by. “I couldn’t have done,” Bailey said.

>> Also read: Harley boss’s son became Grenfell project manager at 25

Unacceptable behaviour

The inquiry heard Rydon had complained to Harley about the conduct of one staff member installing the new external envelope for the west London tower.

Millett read an April 2015 email from Rydon project manager Simon O’Connor who said there had been a number of complaints about one person knocking on residents’ windows asking for tea; scaring animals inside flats; showing a “complete lack of respect for health and safety” and criticising the quality of Rydon’s work.

O’Connor said such behaviour “only adds fuel to the fire” of the “difficult situation” the firm was tackling with Grenfell residents at the time and said the offending individual would be removed from the site permanently if there were any more incidents.

Millett asked Bailey if the complaint gave him any concerns about Osborne Berry’s ability to supervise its own staff and the quality of its work.

Bailey said he understood the worker involved had been warned but did not think they had been removed from the site.

The inquiry continues.

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