Grenfell Tower fire engineer did not look at cladding plans

The fire engineer on Grenfell Tower did not look at plans showing the building might be wrapped in aluminium cladding panels before advising that the works would not increase the risk of fire spreading across the building.

Appearing at the public inquiry into the disaster that killed 72 people, Terry Ashton, a senior associate at fire engineer Exova, was asked whether he created a “false sense of security” in the design team after he admitted he had not looked at plans emailed to him about overcladding the building.

Ashton’s role was to advise on the fire safety of the refurbishment and its compliance with building regulations, but he denied abdicating his responsibilities by not finding out about the cladding, which would later be found to have been the prime accelerant of the the 14 June 2017 blaze.

In October 2012, architects Studio E sent him a detailed design report spelling out plans to overclad the building, possibly with aluminium panels. It included plans and sections showing how the cladding would be fixed and a detailed diagram of the build-up of the system, showing the insulation and existing building. But he did not open it.

Ashton said he did not know about plans to clad the building and that he did not look at the designs as he was not specifically asked to. He said his decision was partly because they were “very lengthy documents”.

He subsequently produced a fire safety strategy that made no mention of plans to reclad the tower, and concluded: “The proposed changes will have no adverse effect on the building in relation to external fire spread, but this will be confirmed by an analysis in a future issue of this report.” The wording remained the same in two subsequent reports.

Counsel to the inquiry, Kate Grange QC, asked him: “Would you agree that maintaining this wording without clarifying the position about the cladding … was an abdication of your responsibilities?”

He said: “I wouldn’t put it in those strong terms. We can only react to what we are being given to look at. I will accept that maybe we should have pursued Studio E a bit more firmly, or at all, to say, ‘What are you doing about the external walls?’”

Neither was there anything in his fire strategy about the need for cavity barriers to prevent flames spreading through the cladding system, or the building’s “stay put” strategy. The first phase of the inquiry has already found that lives were lost because of the advice to remain in place, and that cavity barriers failed to prevent flames and smoke racing up the building.

Ashton, who has already told the inquiry he gave advice on the fire safety of the refurbishment works without visiting the tower block, was also sent a package of works that included details about new rain screen cladding, curtain walling and replacement windows and asked to “look it over”.

When Grange asked why he would not look at these documents, he replied: “We would not expect to look at a whole series of building packages just because we were part of the design team.”

Grange asked whether his conclusion that the plans did not exacerbate the risk of external fire spread “might have created a false sense of security in the design team”. Ashton replied: “They might have thought that, but they might have thought they should check with Exova.”

The lead architect on the works, Bruce Sounes, said in earlier evidence there was nothing from Exova that gave his team any concern about the overcladding, but Ashton said: “They didn’t ask me, ‘Is everything OK?’ … We never had a dialogue with them.”

Ashton was also asked about his understanding of the BR 135 guidance on fire spread in external walls, which he admitted he had not read “from cover to cover”. It referred to melting metal panels that could fall off, generating molten debris, and the risk of using new laminated panels.

“If you’d have read this guidance, it would have alerted you to that, wouldn’t it?” Grange said. “It would have done, yes,” said Ashton.

“I am not sure I can say I had a laser-like focus about anything,” Ashton said. “I didn’t see fit to say to the design team, ‘We need to have discussion about what we are doing about the overcladding.’ I assumed that would happen at some point in the future.”

He insisted: “They didn’t tell me what they were doing.”

Exova has said it was never consulted about the materials chosen to cover Grenfell and claims it was effectively sidelined after Rydon became the main contractor in 2014.