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Grenfell: Clerk of works checked compliance ‘by asking Building Control and main contractor’

29 September 2020
Gurpal Virdee

The Clerk of Works firm appointed to undertake site inspection services at the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower said its role when checking that works were compliant with legal requirements was to ask “the question of Building Control and the principal contractor”.

Gurpal Virdee, managing partner of John Rowan and Partners (JRP), which appointed two clerks of works – one inspecting general building works and one checking M&E – set out their roles as he understood them while giving evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry yesterday (28 September).

Virdee dealt with the tender for the work, issued by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) and was the manager of Grenfell clerk of works Jonathan White’s line manager Luis Zarraoa.

Asked by counsel to the Inquiry Rose Grogan if he noted at the time that the TMO was looking for a building clerk of works with experience of the installation of cladding, Virdee said that cladding came in many different forms and so in terms of experience “we had that in our resources”. He added: “If it said there: ‘I need an expert façade engineer to check the external cladding’ that would have raised a red flag in my mind because I would have asked the question internally: do we have that resource?”

Limited roles

Virdee said that his impression of the tender document was that both the general building clerk of works and the M&E clerk of works were to have a “limited” role on Grenfell.

Asked why he saw it that way, he said: “You have got to fundamentally look at what the role was, so site inspection and monitoring services. And you look at the contract. It’s a design and build contract where the client has transferred the responsibility for a product to be designed, fully compliant and to the best quality they can build it. Now, when I see that, I know contractually that a clerk of works isn’t necessary for this job because there isn’t that requirement. So I know instantly my role is limited. If I was a full-time clerk of works on a traditional contract, the risk is more with the client and the architect in terms of compliance and the architect, by extension, employs a clerk of works to be his eyes and ears, and traditionally he would be full-time on site, so he had maximum exposure to a site. He’ll understand what’s going on in meetings, subcontractor meetings, if anyone is turning up to the site, any issues which perhaps someone would want to keep to themselves, your ear would be to the wall, so you’ll know. For me, that’s already a major shift, and then when you get to looking at the site inspection role, that break’s already there, if that makes sense.”

Grogan asked if that meant that on a design and build contract, where JRP knew it wouldn’t be on site every day, it wouldn’t want the clerk of works on those days to be their eyes and ears.

Virdee replied: “Yes, they would still be their eyes and ears, but the difference is in the amount of information they’ll be able to glean on that one day compared to being there five days a week…In terms of his walk-around on site, they would be looking around, and if they saw something that wasn’t right, they would raise it and put it in their report.”

He also explained that the clerks of works, who visited site once a week, weren’t instructed to attend any design team meetings, and for the first six months from when they started, they weren’t involved in any site progress meetings, so design changes would have to be picked up from site inspections.

Grogan asked: “How is it you can expect a clerk of works to do their job if, as you’re saying, they may not be aware of design changes or what’s happening on site?”

Virdee said: “Well, you would hope from that inspection that he picks up that information by asking the question.”

Legal requirements

Asked what he understood the legal requirements that the clerk of works had to be familiar with as part of the work, Virdee said: “In terms of building compliance, I would in this instance say that we would be checking that the works were compliant by asking the question of Building Control and the principal contractor. The general clerk of works…could be a labourer, they could be a plasterer, they could be an electrician. So if they’re looking at that element, they can only do it within their sphere of expertise. So if they’re being asked to check whether something is compliant as the design, I would expect them to ask the expert who is responsible for that element. Because they wouldn’t be an expert in every single facet of every approved document and the general building.”

Asked if, looking at the invitation to tender, he agreed that JRP’s role was to check for compliance with Building Regulations, Virdee replied: “No.”

Grogan, reading from the tender, said that the clerk of works’ duties shall be: “Being familiar with legal requirements and checking that the work complies with them.”

She added: “It doesn’t say, ‘Check that those responsible are checking’, does it?”

Virdee replied: “Let’s go back to what the design and build contract was. The responsibility under a design and build contract is for the principal contractor to provide the client with a product which is fully compliant, designed to a top quality. Now, they have been paid a fee to design and ensure the compliance of that. What I’m trying to say there is we haven’t been part of that process. We’re coming in on site, and those discussions and those issues are being addressed by others, of which we’re not involved. So the best we can do is by asking the question, ‘Have you guys checked that it’s compliant and have Building Control approved it?’”

Sir Martin Moore-Bick, chair of the Inquiry, attempted to clarify Virdee’s answer. He asked: “What I think is being put to you for your comment, agreement or disagreement, is that this line in the duties requires your building inspector to be aware of all the legal requirements applicable to the work and to ensure that they are all complied with. Is that a fair way of putting it?”

Virdee replied: “I don’t think it’s to ensure, I think it’s to check, and by checking is asking the question of those who were responsible for compliance to confirm that it complies or not. And the reason is because if you’re asking us to confirm that it all complies, I would probably need 15 different experts for every single approved document to confirm that it complies, which is not what the client is intending. They’ve already procured a design and build contract for the principal contractor to take that responsibility.”

Value added

Grogan then asked: “What value was John Rowan and Partners adding to the client if all it was doing was checking that Building Control was checking?”

Virdee: “I think … we were asked by the client, and there’s a specific email of what they requested us to do, and it was to inspect site and report on, I think, five or six different aspects of the project and identify any issues that we would find, and the reports, to be fair, do pick up issues and areas that needed to be addressed. So there is value in that. Part of that also was, and one of the requirements from the TMO, to engage with the residents in terms of dealing with their issues, and there were issues, and it’s a disruptive programme of works, and the client had asked for Jon to either attend meetings with residents who may have had issues with works and what’s going on, so they were there to help the process. So I think the value is there.”

The Inquiry continues.