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01 December 2020 00:46

Grenfell Tower fire Fire department Inquiry

building insulation

The makers of combustible insulation used on Grenfell Tower did not consider withdrawing an insulation product from the high-rise market even after it "burnt very ferociously" and failed a fire test, the inquiry into the disaster has heard. Kingspan changed the make-up of its Kooltherm K15 insulation after 2005 without amending the marketing material stating it was suitable for use on buildings over 18 metres and had passed a relevant fire test, the inquiry has heard. The new version of the phenolic foam insulation – referred to as "new technology" versus "old technology" in proceedings – failed a subsequent fire test in December 2007 held by the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Internal Kingspan analysis at the time noted: "The new technology phenolic is very different in a fire situation to the previous technology which has passed several similar tests. Kingspan's then-technical manager, Philip Heath said he "can't recall" considering whether, at that stage, it was appropriate for the firm to keep selling the product.

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Inquiry lawyer Kate Grange QC asked: "Can you help us as to why you didn't say 'stop all sales of this product, particularly sales over 18 metres, we need to do some further investigations'?" Asked if there were discussions among senior managers about whether to withdraw it from the market, Mr Heath said: "Not that I can recall, no." The firm has said it did not provide any advice about the suitability of K15 for use on Grenfell Tower, and that the firm only learned a small amount of the insulation had been used on the building after the June 2017 fire, which killed 72 people. A letter from Kingspan to the inquiry last month said a test pass cited to approve K15 on high-rises since 2005 has been withdrawn. "While both products are still phenolic foam, Kingspan is now of the view that there are sufficient differences to consider withdrawing the test report." A senior executive at Kingspan, which made combustible insulation used on Grenfell Tower, said a builder who questioned its product's fire safety should "go f*ck themselves", the public inquiry into the fire has heard. Philip Heath, a technical manager at the company, also said of a contractor trying to check what turned out to be misleading claims about the safety of its foam boards: "If they are not careful, we'll sue the arse off them." He also told friends that builders asking questions were mistaking him for "someone who gives a dam [sic]". The inquiry has already heard from a former executive that the firm was involved in a "deliberate and calculated deceit", which involved marketing the product without solid test evidence.

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Kingspan sold its insulation on the basis of testing carried out on an older version of the product that caught fire more slowly and emitted less heat. The inquiry heard last week that Kingspan threatened to take legal action against a certification and new homes warranty body, the NHBC, if it shared concerns with the market about the company's evidence for its claims. Asked why he did not take the questions seriously given that they related to "life safety", Heath said: "I think we did take life safety seriously." "Do you agree that this reflected a culture within Kingspan at the time?" asked Kate Grange QC, counsel to the inquiry. Last week the inquiry heard how Kingspan threatened a building control body, the National House Building Council, with legal action when it said it would make it clear to clients that Kingspan should not be used on high rises outside the system tested. The inquiry has also heard how Kingspan passed a large-scale test with its K15 insulation as part of a mock wall with cement particle board cladding in 2005.

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But it then marketed it as suitable for use on high rises generally - not making it clear that it was only permitted as part of the specific system tested. Asked whether Kingspan should have withdrawn the product from the high rise market at this point, Mr Heath conceded that "with hindsight" it should have. "Do you accept that there existed no test evidence during the period you were technical manager that K15 as being sold complied with the requirements for use above 18m?" Ms Grange asked. Nonetheless, Kingspan continued to sell it for use on high rises and even used the 2005 test to gain certification from respected independent certifiers the British Board of Agrement and Local Authority Building Control (LABC) asserting that the product was suitable for high rises. The LABC certificate said K15 "can be considered a material of limited combustibility" and was therefore suitable for use in "all situations" on high rises.

No plastic insulation could ever achieve a rating of limited combustibility (the basic standard for use on high rises) - a fact Mr Heath knew. "What I'm suggesting to you is that you knew that certificate was misleading and you celebrated it because it was an open ticket to install [K15] on high rise buildings, didn't you?" asked Ms Grange He explained that he believed the phrase simply meant the product could be treated as limited combustibility if it was used in the system Kingspan tested. Later emails from Mr Heath showed him saying that he believed further testing of the product could be stopped, as the certificates alone would satisfy queries about its use. Ms Grange asked Mr Heath why none of the emails showed any concern for life safety.