Grenfell Tower: Risks Extended Well Beyond Cladding Alone
Amidst a myriad of conflicting accounts regarding the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower the Metropolitan Police Service was contacted on the 27th of June 2017.
The complex investigation into Grenfell is continuing but, at this time, the Met have made clear no arrests have been made, no charges brought and no summonses have been issued. Broadly circulated rumours regarding large numbers of bodies being recovered in single rooms have been dismissed as untrue. The police are issuing regular and accurate updates as the investigation progresses.
Downing Street was also contacted when further rumours of a D-Notice issued in respect of the death toll began to circulate through alternative media outlets. No such notice has been issued to restrict reporting of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower.
Beyond the conflicting accounts which have now been clarified, a number of sources close to the investigation and within the fire and buildings industries have come forwards, helping build a picture of the true scale of a catalogue of risks which residents of Grenfell have faced over many years.
“a number of sources close to the investigation and within the fire and buildings industries have come forwards, helping build a picture of the true scale of a catalogue of risks”
One source claims that KCTMO, the managing agency of Grenfell Tower heavily criticised by residents, was served an improvement notice by the London Fire Brigade in the years before the block was refurbished. They added that the scope of the notice had broader implications than Grenfell alone.
Their concerns are well founded and the circumstances have been reported by the Evening Standard, who wrote “the company that manages Grenfell Tower was ordered to make safety improvements to two other tower blocks after a serious blaze in 2015…The London Fire Brigade enforcement notices followed a blaze in Adair Tower in North Kensington, which was caused by arson and resulted in several residents being taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation…The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which manages the council’s housing stock, was required to fit self-closing devices to the front doors of all 78 flats in the 14-storey block and improve safety in the escape staircases…The same requirements were made for adjacent Hazelwood Tower, the KCTMO annual accounts reveal.”
According to the source, the fire service did not enforce the original notice, though they did go on to liaise with KCTMO and the contractors during the refurbishment works, and also visited the site frequently.
London Fire Brigade declined to comment on the claims, saying “all information relating to Grenfell is part of a police investigation.”
The same source also stated that the residential tower-block had no working AOV (automatic smoke ventilation system) for a period of up to eight years.
“London Fire Brigade declined to comment on the information, saying “all information relating to Grenfell is part of a police investigation.”
While the 2012 Fire Risk Assessment for Grenfell Tower, seen by Byline, states “as well as the electrically operated door entry control system on the entrance door of this building, there is also a reception area which is manned 24 hours a day, these measures are to restrict entry to the building to authorised personnel only,” a source has informed us that the Concierge was removed by KCTMO before refurbishment works began.
They added that the design of the building’s systems meant the “fire alarm required the concierge to monitor and alert LFB in the event of an alarm.”
The further defects in the design of the original mechanism to alert residents in the event of fires are supported by a further entry in the 2012 FRA, which states “there is an automatic smoke detector located in each flat/lift lobby area on every residential floor level of this building and a full fire alarm and warning system installed in the office areas of the building. The basement boiler room area has a manual system and the roof level lift motor room and plant rooms have automatic and manual systems all these devices are linked into the single fire alarm panel located in the ground floor entrance lobby area. There are no sounders of the fire alarm system in the residential parts of the building the detectors are only located here to operate the ventilation system.”
“all these devices are linked into the single fire alarm panel located in the ground floor entrance lobby area. There are no sounders of the fire alarm system in the residential parts of the building the detectors are only located here to operate the ventilation system.”
A further source has stated that “some workers sent into flats may have been exposed to asbestos as they had not been told that it was present in the artex ceiling plaster and had drilled into it.”
The source is supported by an article in the Telegraph, which confirmed that “Asbestos was found in artex in ceilings of the individual flats, and in panels inside airing cupboards.”
The Grenfell Action Group website had also highlighted the specific risk, writing in one post “these same forgotten households are also subject to other hidden dangers that no-one, not a single official or media reporter – has made any public reference to asbestos. There was lots of this in Grenfell Tower, notably in the artex coated ceilings of every apartment, and there were small solid asbestos panels in all apartments too.”
Dr Deborah Turbitt, health protection director for Public Health England is also reported to have stated that “We know that bound asbestos, contained in building materials such as plaster or fibre board, was present in Grenfell Tower in ceilings and header panels inside airing cupboards.”
“some workers sent into flats may have been exposed to asbestos as they had not been told that it was present in the artex ceiling plaster and had drilled into it.”
Another source has told me that the managing agent's discussions with the cladding contractor, Harley Facades, led to a “required significant cost saving” of around £500,000 which was found by making changes to the outer coating of the cladding material provided. The change was made following a request by KCTMO to provide further monetary reductions on the scheme to meet their budget. This change was agreed by the design team which included Studio E.
The Guardian have written extensively on this, supporting the sources independent claim, writing “material used in the cladding that covered the Grenfell Tower was the cheaper, more flammable version of the two available options, an investigation of the supply chain has confirmed. Omnis Exteriors manufactured the aluminium composite material (ACM) used in the cladding, a company director, John Cowley, confirmed to the Guardian. He also said Omnis had been asked to supply Reynobond PE cladding, which is £2 cheaper per square metre than the alternative Reynobond FR, which stands for “fire resistant” to the companies that worked on refurbishing Grenfell Tower. The supplier said it had been asked for Reynobond PE rather than FR – fire resistant…“We supplied components for a system created by the design and build team on that project,” said Cowley. Harley Facades confirmed it had installed the panels bought from Omnis in the work it performed on Grenfell Tower.”
The cladding provided, however, still apparently met the requirements of Building Control as being suitable for use on buildings over 18 metres, though flaws in both government regulation and the building control industry have previously been exposed.
The source also highlighted that, during the works, the previous incarnation of Harley Facades entered administration and Rydon agreed to transfer the contract to new Harley company. This has been independently verified - and was reported in the Telegraph - and the liquidation is thought to have been provoked by a substantial claim regarding defective cladding on another project.
The Grenfell work itself was regularly inspected throughout the project and was signed off with a completion certificate by Kensington and Chelsea council in July 2016.
Numerous sources have complained of ongoing gas leaks at Grenfell Tower and these have been broadly confirmed, though some specific allegations that offers were made to install electric cooking appliances rather than replace gas pipework on one floor cannot be confirmed at this time.
The brother of the first named victim of the Grenfell Tower fire has told the BBC that repeated concerns from residents over the gas works - and exposed pipeworks left after repairs - were broadly disregarded. He told the BBC reporters gas was “leaking before and then they stopped it. It wasn’t working for a year. Then, the gas company came and fixed new gas pipes on the outside of the wall. They weren’t on the inside. They were very dangerous and they were exposed.”
He added: “The residents all complained about it. They were sending messages by post, because it’s not right.”
A Kensington and Chelsea council safety expert had ordered the National Grid to protect the pipework with fire-retardant boxing and the public agency agreed to protect the pipes serving individual flats, which had been installed over the winter. However, they had only fitted a third of the protection by the time of the fire.
According to the Guardian, “a fire safety consultant for Kensington and Chelsea council, which owns the tower, had approved the location of new gas risers and pipes in landings and stairways, but only if they were clad in “fire-rated” boxing, according to an email to leaseholders from Sacha Jevans, director of operations at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.”
“Jevans said that the National Grid assured the council on 27 March that the pipes would be protected, but two-thirds of the lateral pipes were still exposed when the disaster happened on 14 June,” the newspaper added.
Transco was sold in March 2017 and renamed as Cadent, who said the “work was still ongoing to box in the lateral pipes” on the day of the fire.
Another source, writing on an internet forum, set out concerns,outlining a hypothetical scenario in which “full refurbishment last year to building H & S Standards, and signed off: Each room/flat is sealed between rooms, thus fire spread is hindered. Then another contractor goes in to re- fit gas supplies flat to flat, involving boring holes through floors/walls for pipes. At the end of the job these holes are not sealed.”
Multiple sources have expressed concerns that the gas installations were likely to have created holes in the structure which acted to reduce the building’s ability to contain fire, and one source claims images show smokeless jets of flame burning in the block after the fire had been put out.
A further source claims that Fire Risk Assessments for other tower blocks, in particular in Camden, will be “interesting.” They claim the Camden blocks were “not evacuated for cladding reasons,” but because “fire doors were missing.”
The source’s information has been largely confirmed by a statement from the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Sajid Javid, who said that flammable cladding did not form “the whole story behind the evacuation in North London” and outlined a series of problems including missing fire doors.
“Literally hundreds of fire doors were missing,” Javid told reporters adding - on the topic of the evacuations of residents from a series of residential towers - that “the estimate by Camden Council itself is they need at least 1,000 fire doors because they were missing from those five blocks.”
Also echoing the damning catalogue of risks identified in respect of Grenfell, Javid additionally highlighted similar concerns in Camden’s properties, saying “for example there were problems with gas pipe insulation, there were stairways that were not accessible, there were breaches of internal walls.”
Fire doors were a source of concern at Grenfell too.
In the 2012 FRA for Grenfell Tower, the assessor highlighted that “The door to each of the refuse chute rooms is a 30 minute fire rated door fitted with a self closing device and cold smoke seals, the staircase doors are also 30 minute fire rated doors but do not have cold smoke seals on them. This is because the inflow air route for the automatic ventilation system installed on each flat/lift lobby area comes in via the small gaps around these doors. The doors on the cupboards of the walkway lift area appear to be fire rated but if they are not the presently fitted doors are suitable and fulfil the function that is required of them as they are close fitting solid doors.”
The AOV was installed by Witt UK, a subcontractor in the refurbishment works and also acts as an environmental vent with intakes fitted in each corridor and in the stairwell.When temperature sensors reach a certain point, the system is designed to clear four floors of smoke at a time by opening the AOV and sucking out the air.
One source close to the investigation has highlighted that any public area doors subsequently fitted with intumescent strips could have inhibited the function of the AOV system on the night of the fire. Changes to the gas system may also have effected the AOV functionality.
“Also echoing the damning catalogue of risks identified in respect of Grenfell, Javid additionally highlighted similar concerns in Camden’s properties,”
The 2012 Fire Risk Assessment at Grenfell also underlined a series of failures in KCTMO’s testing regime of fire-fighting equipment and fire-safety systems. Some extinguishers were marked as condemned.
The report noted that “from the asset records provided to me by the TMO the emergency lighting and fire alarm systems along with the dry riser, fire fighter lifts and the hose reels installed in this building are all subject to a maintenance contracts. Testing, servicing and maintenance is being carried out by professional third party contractors on a planned preventive maintenance programme with records kept centrally by TMO at the “Hub” and by the contractor for all these systems, no test certificates have been seen to confirm this. RGE Services are under contract to TMO to provide portable fire fighting equipment, testing, servicing and maintenance, the fire extinguisher in this building, the basement boiler room, the lift motor room, the ground floor electrical room plus other areas were out of test date according to the contractors label on the extinguishers. The last test date was on the 8th August 2011. Some located in the roof level areas had “condemned” written on them in large black writing with a last test date of 2009 or 2010. This seems to indicate that monthly occupier inspections are not being carried out. It is not known if the caretaker is undertaking the monthly occupier’s tests of the installed emergency lighting system, fire extinguishers and structural items as per the caretakers check list this would include the external stairs and lift checks with the results being kept as a record of testing having been undertaken.”
Sources with knowledge of the building itself have indicated that some fire extinguishers were still labelled as “out of date as late as Spring 2016.”
Investigations continue and this article has been sent to the Metropolitan Police Service as it may prove of use in their inquiry.