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Grenfell: Rydon project manager ‘hadn’t heard of ACM cladding’

27 July 2020 | By Neil Gerrard

The Rydon project manager working on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment hadn’t heard of aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, the Inquiry into the 2017 fire has heard.

Simon O’Connor also said Grenfell was the first project involving cladding that he had been responsible for as project manager.

He was employed by the contractor from 2002 until September 2015, working his way up from the role of foreman to project manager. His involvement in the Grenfell Tower project began in May 2014 and lasted until August 2015. He left the company due to the “pressure” of the role, having been offered an opportunity for more money elsewhere.

O’Connor appeared before the Grenfell Tower Inquiry yesterday (23 July), although in a live video stream of the hearing, his image was replaced by a blue screen bearing the Grenfell Tower Inquiry logo, after he made an application to Inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick that he should not be visible while giving evidence.

Design details

O’Connor said he was not aware of all design decisions on the project and only attended some design meetings “purely from a logistics and sequencing point of view”. It was his responsibility, he said, to take finalised drawings marked “approved for construction” and to co-ordinate the work so that the project ran on time, however he was not in control of the budget.

He also made it clear that the materials for Grenfell Tower had already been chosen when he joined the project.

Asked by leading counsel to the Inquiry Richard Millett QC if he ever asked questions or familiarised himself with the detailed properties of aluminium composite rainscreen cladding, O’Connor replied that he had not.

Asked if he had ever wondered if the materials were safe, O’Connor said: “I saw conversations regarding Building Regs and stuff like that between Studio E and Harleys and different parties. I just presumed they had all covered that base, bearing in mind they are specialists.”

O’Connor claimed he wasn’t aware of the different kinds of cladding panels that were available in the UK at the time of the Grenfell Tower project and had not heard of aluminium composite material (ACM), nor that it frequently contained a polyethylene core.

He also didn’t recall any training or CPD organised by Rydon in the aftermath of the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009, and was not aware of a spate of high-rise building fires in the UAE in 2012 and 2013, nor in France in Roubaix in 2012.

Millett highlighted tender documentation for the Grenfell Tower project dated 13 February 2014 and asked O’Connor about a version of his CV that appeared within it.

It read: “Simon is responsible for managing the smooth delivery of the project. He is responsible for all operations on site, including delivery to programme and budget; co-ordinating design; and management of subcontractors.”

O’Connor, who said he had not compiled the CV, disagreed with the summary of his role and denied that co-ordinating design was part of his remit because he wasn’t qualified to do so. He added that while he was aware of discussions involving value engineering on the project, he was not involved in value engineering himself either and was not aware of any cost-cutting decisions being made on site.

Later in the hearing, Millett asked O’Connor: “Is the reality, Mr O’Connor, that you weren’t sufficiently qualified to assess what stage the design had reached or to notice any material or important omissions?”

O’Connor replied: “Yes.”

Pressure

Asked why he decided to leave Rydon, O’Connor said: “I was given the opportunity to go. There was a lot of pressures at the project at Grenfell. We was falling behind programme and there was a lot of pressure and I was given the opportunity to join another company for significantly more money and another opportunity.”

He said the pressures on site involved “extremely long days, just a lot of pressure, it was affecting my home life”. He added: “When I was given the opportunity to leave, I didn’t take it easily. I had been there a long time, but the opportunity I was given was – I couldn’t really turn it down.”

Nonetheless, O’Connor said he felt he was being given support in his role.

Workmanship

When it came to ensuring the quality of workmanship on the project, O’Connor denied that it was it was “entirely” his role and that he was reliant on the professional opinions of his site managers too as he couldn’t be “everywhere always”.

When asked how he dealt with Building Control if they arrived on site, O’Connor said he would meet them initially but wouldn’t always have accompanied them on visits around the site but would instead send them off with other site managers. “I would have welcomed them on to site and probably done the making of tea and just chewing the fat for a minute and then he [Building Control] would have gone out with the relevant managers. I wouldn’t have gone always,” he said.

Millett asked if, when he did accompany Building Control, they would have a detailed conversation.

O’Connor responded: “Not detailed, we was just walking around, looking at the progress…I wouldn’t go up in a mast climber because it just takes too much time out of my day to do that and that’s why the managers are there.”

Contractual obligations

O’Connor admitted that he was “not really aware” of Rydon’s contractual obligations to its client.

Asked if he needed to be familiar at least with Rydon’s main contractual obligations, O’Connor said that he “probably” should have made himself familiar with what Rydon had promised its client but hadn’t done so. He didn’t recall a physical copy of the contract being held on site and said that if ever he needed to make sure whether he had to do something, he would ask colleagues Simon Lawrence or Steve Blake.

Millett asked: “Did you understand that, as the design and build contractor, Rydon as a company retained ultimate responsibility for the design of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and the works related to it?”

O’Connor replied: “At the time, no. I presumed that that responsibility would be passed on to the designers and architects. I didn’t believe that would stay with Rydon at the time.”

Millett continued: “So at the time, was your understanding that Rydon actually had no responsibility at all because it had appointed subcontractors?”

O’Connor answered: “I wouldn’t say it had no responsibility at all, but I thought that that responsibility was shared throughout the specialist subcontractors to be compliant with what it needed to be compliant with.”

The Inquiry continues.