Firm Involved with Grenfell Refurb Liquidates

THURSDAY, MAY 28, 2020

The architecture firm that was in charge of the Grenfell Tower’s refurbishment has reportedly entered voluntary liquidation, owing more than 140,000 pounds ($171,513) to creditors.

The Architects’ Journal reports that the company appointed Alan Clark of Carter Clark as liquidator at the end of April.

The firm has come under scrutiny after it began taking the stand at the inquiry for the London high-rise fire.

On June 14, 2017, Grenfell Tower—a 24-story, 120-home apartment building—caught fire and resulted in the death of 72 people. While the fire started in a fridge-freezer in an apartment on the fourth floor, the blaze then spread to a nearby window. The building had recently undergone a $12.73 million renovation designed by Studio E Architects that was completed in the spring of 2016 and is largely believed to be responsible for why the fire spread so quickly.

The Inquiry

Phase One of the inquiry was completed last fall, with the findings published on Oct. 30. This phase was to look at what happened on the night of the fire itself, and the 1,000-page report criticized not only the response to the fire but the 2016 renovation as well.

Arguably of most importance, inquiry head Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired Court of Appeals judge, said that it seems that the refurbishment did not comply with the building regulations requirement to adequately resist the spread of fire.

“There is compelling evidence that Requirement B4(1) was not met in this case,” he said. “It would be an affront to common sense to hold otherwise.”

In addition to the preliminary conclusions on the 2016 refurbishment, the report also accuses the fire brigade’s response to the fire as having “systematic failures” with no contingency plan to evacuate the tower. It also criticized the brigade’s decision to maintain the “stay-put policy” even when the stairs were passable.

After the report, Dany Cotton, the London Fire Commissioner who was in charge of the response, resigned.

The second phase, which started Jan. 27, is to examine the refurbishment, including the installation of flammable cladding.

According to the Telegraph, this phase is said to be more complex than the first, which took 16 months to complete. Preparation for this phase has reportedly unearthed 200,000 documents and the phase will be split into eight “modules” with 21 companies and 600 individuals named as “core participants.”

Among the modules, the areas that will be investigated include the refurbishment itself, the testing of the cladding, complaints from residents prior to the fire, the management of the building and the aftermath of it all.

Some estimates say that it could take Moore-Bick until at least 2023 to publish a final report. Only then would police and prosecutors get a chance to review the findings and then pursue charges, if any.

A few days into the second phase, after much finger-pointing, lawyers for Studio E, Rydon, the TMO and Harley wrote to Moore-Bick arguing that their clients could claim privilege against self-incrimination and not answer questions, noting that they would only speak openly if the attorney general gave an understanding that nothing they said would be used against them in criminal prosecution.

In late February, United Kingdom Attorney General Suella Braverman announced that she was granting the undertaking. In her letter to the inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick, Braverman wrote that receiving “substantive answers” to questions in the probe is of an important public interest.

Therefore, the undertaking will cover people, will not impact the ongoing criminal investigation and will not jeopardize criminal prosecutions.

Last month, lead architect Bruce Sounes, admitted that he had not read the Building Regulations covering fire safety in high-rises.

He said that he was “largely unaware there was specific guidance in Approved Document B for buildings taller than 18 meters and did not know that aluminum panels could melt.”

After Sounes admitted to not reading the regulations, inquiry lawyer Kate Grange asked what steps he did take to familiarize himself with the project and with Approved Document B.

Sounes pointed to the use of fire consultants and claimed that the design responsibilities should have fallen on design-build contractor Rydon.

However, the lawyer pointed to a document between Studio E and Rydon that specified Studio’s duties. They included: “seek to ensure that all designs comply with the statutory requirements” and “with other consultants, where appointed, develop the scheme designs, agree with the contractor the type of construction and quality selection of materials.”

In addition, it also came to light that the tenant management organization had breached regulations in the appointment of Studio E in the first place. Studio E reportedly, deliberately deferred a chunk of its fees to stay under the threshold that would trigger an open public tender for design services.

The practice also admitted to having no experience in overcladding or refurbishing high-rises, meaning that it would’ve been unlikely that the firm would have won any public competitive procurement process.

Instead, the Studio landed the job “on the back of its work for the local council on the linked Kensington Academy and Leisure Centre.”

Natalie Oxford, CC-SA-BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Architects’ Journal reports that the company appointed Alan Clark of Carter Clark as liquidator at the end of April.

Meanwhile, Studio E associate Neil Crawford blamed the government for not amending the regulations on cladding systems when there were known problems.

In mid-March, the Inquiry panel decided to suspend the hearings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, prior to the suspension, Studio E Architects continued to testify, revealing that Sounes urged his client for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment to not show the fire brigade the fire safety plans because the brigade might support “a severe interpretation of the regulations.”

When questioned, Sounes said that he didn’t want to show the LFB because he hadn’t been able to discuss the notes made by the RBCK.

In addition to this it was noted the Studio E prepared the National Building Specification documents, which state that all produced used comply with the standard for systemized building envelopes by the Center for Window and Cladding Technology.

Yet, Studio E specified Celotex FR5000 aluminum foil insulation for the cladding system, even though architect Thomas Rek testified that he had not checked whether that material met standards. The product ultimately used was the Celotex RS5000.

What Now

According to documents filed at Companies House (the United Kingdom’s registrar of companies), Studio E owes:

  • 19,115 pounds (as of April 14) to four employees;
  • 68,775 pounds to the Department of Employment;
  • 10,000 pounds in rent; and
  • 80,000 pounds in trade and expense creditors.

According to the Architects’ Journal, “Balancing against these and other liabilities was a sum expected from HMRC of around 48,000 pounds. No assets were available to unsecured creditors, and the total estimated deficiency to creditors was 142,412 pounds.”

Studio E Architects was formed in 1994, while a separate company, Studio E Limited Liability Partnership, was registered in 2007. The latter shuttered in 2014, owing creditors more than 200,000 pounds at the time.

The Grenfell commission had originally been on the Partnership books in 2012, and then was subsequently taken on by the main firm.

Inquiry Update

While the Inquiry panel has said that it won’t make a firm prediction on when the hearings will resume, organizers reportedly are hoping to restart in July with limited attendance.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Business matters; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); EU; Fire; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; Laws and litigation; Safety

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