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UK Unveils Regulatory Body for Construction

Thursday, January 28, 2021

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The United Kingdom’s Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick recently unveiled a new regulatory body that’s been established to oversee the safety of construction materials. The decision was influenced by not just London’s Grenfell Tower fire, but also by what has been revealed during the inquiry into the disaster.

“The regulator for construction products will have the power to remove any product from the market that presents a significant safety risk and prosecute any companies who flout the rules on product safety,” the announcement reads.

“This follows recent testimony to the Grenfell Inquiry that shone a light on the dishonest practice by some manufacturers of construction products, including deliberate attempts to game the system and rig the results of safety tests.”

The regulator will also have “strong enforcement powers,” including the ability to conduct its own product testing.

ChiralJon, CC-SA-BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The United Kingdom’s Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick recently unveiled a new regulatory body that’s been established to oversee the safety of construction materials. The decision was influenced by not just London’s Grenfell Tower fire, but also by what has been revealed during the inquiry into the disaster.

“The Grenfell Inquiry has heard deeply disturbing allegations of malpractice by some construction product manufacturers and their employees, and of the weaknesses of the present product testing regime,” Jenrik said.

“We are establishing a national regulator to address these concerns and a review into testing to ensure our national approach is fit for purpose. We will continue to listen to the evidence emerging in the Inquiry, and await the judge’s ultimate recommendation - but it is already clear that action is required now and that is what we are doing.”

Jenrick first put forth the idea of the regulator at the beginning of last year when he proposed a number of changes, most notably concerning cladding bans on high-rise buildings.

Grenfell Fire Background

During the early hours of June 14, 2017, a fire broke out in one of west London’s high-rises, the Grenfell Tower. The 24-story, 120-home apartment building had recently undergone a $12.73 million renovation that was completed in the spring of 2016.

At that time, the building was refurbished with a system of polyester powder-coated aluminum rain-screen panels, insulated exterior cladding and double-glazed windows, as well as a communal heating system.

In April of 2018, new investigations revealed that the cladding fitted on the Grenfell Tower had been downgraded before it was installed on the London high-rise. According to tests that BBC News uncovered from 2014 and 2015, a zinc cladding had originally been specified for the tower, but another brand was substituted for a savings of roughly $388,700.

An inquiry was launched to get to the bottom of who was responsible. Phase One of the inquiry was completed in the fall of 2019, with the findings published on Oct. 30. This phase was to look at what happened on the night of the fire itself, and the 1,000-page report criticized not only the response to the fire but the 2016 renovation as well.

Arguably of most importance, inquiry head Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired Court of Appeals judge, said that it seems that the refurbishment did not comply with the building regulations requirement to adequately resist the spread of fire.

“There is compelling evidence that Requirement B4(1) was not met in this case,” he said. “It would be an affront to common sense to hold otherwise.”

In addition to the preliminary conclusions on the 2016 refurbishment, the report also accuses the fire brigade’s response to the fire as having “systematic failures” with no contingency plan to evacuate the tower. It also criticized the brigade’s decision to maintain the “stay-put policy” even when the stairs were passable.

After the report, Dany Cotton, the London Fire Commissioner who was in charge of the response, resigned.

The second phase, which started Jan. 27, 2020, is ongoing and is examining the refurbishment, including the installation of flammable cladding.

In early March, lead architect, Bruce Sounes, admitted that he had not read the Building Regulations covering fire safety in high-rises.

He said that he was “largely unaware there was specific guidance in Approved Document B for buildings taller than 18 meters and did not know that aluminum panels could melt.”

After Sounes admitted to not reading the regulations, inquiry lawyer Kate Grange asked what steps he did take to familiarize himself with the project and with Approved Document B.

Sounes pointed to the use of fire consultants and claimed that the design responsibilities should have fallen on design-build contractor Rydon.

However, the lawyer pointed to a document between Studio E and Rydon that specified Studio’s duties. They included: “seek to ensure that all designs comply with the statutory requirements” and “with other consultants, where appointed, develop the scheme designs, agree with the contractor the type of construction and quality selection of materials.”

In addition, it also came to light that the tenant management organization had breached regulations in the appointment of Studio E in the first place. Studio E, reportedly, deliberately deferred a chunk of its fees to stay under the threshold that would trigger an open public tender for design services.

The practice also admitted to having no experience in overcladding or refurbishing high-rises, meaning that it would’ve been unlikely that the firm would have won any public competitive procurement process.

Instead, the Studio landed the job “on the back of its work for the local council on the linked Kensington Academy and Leisure Centre.”

Shortly after that testimony, meanwhile, Studio E associate Neil Crawford blamed the government for not amending the regulations on cladding systems when there were known problems.

More recently, before the holiday break, emails from Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan were showed to the inquiry and Adrian Williamson QC and Sam Stein QC, representing the bereaved and survivors, accused the firms and regulators of operating in a “toxic and incestuous culture.”

According to the inquiry reports, one email from a senior executive at Arconic (which made the polyrethylene core cladding panels) showed the official telling colleagues that the shortfall in the product’s fire performance was “something that we have to keep as very confidential.”

An internal presentation from Celotex (manufacturer of the foam insulation) revealed that the company decided to market the product as combustible partly because “nobody understood the test requirements.”

All three companies deny wrongdoing, however, the inquiry turned its attention to documents in part because four Arconic employees refused to give verbal evidence.

The inquiry is slated to restart next month.

   

Tagged categories: Building materials; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); EU; Government; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Regulations; Safety

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