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Grenfell: Fire report ‘professionally negligent’, says expert witness

29 October 2020
Dr Barbara Lane

A draft fire safety strategy relating to the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower by fire consultant Exova showed evidence of “professional negligence” at times, according to an expert witness who appeared before the Grenfell Tower Inquiry yesterday.

Dr Barbara Lane, a director of Arup, was asked about her fire safety engineering report, compiled for phase two of the Inquiry, by Kate Grange QC.

Exova was appointed to the Grenfell project in 2012 and produced a fire safety strategy for the existing building, as well as for the refurbishment, with the latest version coming in 2013. When Rydon was appointed as the main contractor in 2014, Exova was not retained, although it did continue to offer advice.

In her report, parts of which were read out during the hearing, Lane said that Exova failed to identify that overcladding the entire Grenfell Tower building was part of the definition of the refurbishment works in its report.

Nonetheless, Exova still asserted in its report that: “The proposed changes will have no adverse effect on the building in relation to external fire spread.” However, it did go on to add: “This will be confirmed by an analysis in a future issue of this report.” Since Exova was not retained after Rydon’s appointment, no such future issue was produced.

In her report, Dr Lane said: “The records show the staff at Exova had never analysed the external wall construction proposals and so were not in any position to make this statement…Therefore I conclude this was very serious evidence of professional negligence, from my perspective as a practising fire engineer.”

Grange asked Lane, in circumstances where Exova did not have much information about the nature of the overcladding prior to writing its report, what she would expect a “reasonably competent” fire engineer to say about the Approved Document B4 requirement (external fire spread) in its first report.

Lane said: “First of all [you would expect them] to know the building was being overclad…And then to set out, at an absolute bare minimum, the statutory guidance for insulation, cavity barriers, and the external surface. If you are given no drawings whatsoever about the overcladding, and that has happened many times, the best thing left for you to do professionally is to simply state the statutory guidance minimum requirements.”

Inadequate advice

Elsewhere in her report for the Inquiry, Lane said that Exova’s outline fire safety strategy was “wholly inadequate” with respect to providing the “relevant fire safety design guidance to the design team, client and contractor”. Among the failings listed were not dealing properly with Approved Document B requirement B3 (internal fire spread) and B4 (external fire spread). Lane was also critical that there was no reference back to the existing fire safety strategy.

Lane said there was nothing in the oral evidence she had heard so far to cause her to change her view in relation to her conclusions.

Grange read out Exova’s opening submission to the Inquiry in which it said: “Building Regulations and Approved Document B, and the basic approach they take, are the bread and butter of the British construction industry. Construction companies need no specialist advice to be aware of them; nor, likewise, do those involved in designing cladding systems need to be pointed towards the provisions relevant specifically to external fire spread.”

Grange asked Lane for her response to the statement as a justification for why spelling out the performance requirements would have been “pointless”.

Lane replied: “It’s no justification, in my mind, because Exova write a scope of work, offered a detailed fire safety strategy, were appointed to do so, and B4 is one of five significant requirements, and it required information to be provided. I don’t understand — who gets to decide which parts of the Building Regulations are so either irrelevant or well known by others you don’t even need to mention them in a detailed fire safety strategy?”

The Inquiry continues.