Is the Grenfell Tower inferno Kingspan’s Volkswagen moment?
Kingspan has been drawn into the spotlight in the Grenfell inquiry, leading to searching questions about its safety checks
The fire at Grenfell Tower in west London in 2017 in which 72 people died. Photograph: Natalie Oxford/PA Wire
Is this the Volkswagen moment for Kingspan? The moment when a company with a stellar reputation is suddenly exposed for taking shortcuts or for misleading or for other serious shortcomings?
With Volkswagen it was the exposure of efforts to artificially suppress diesel emissions. With Kingspan it is the Grenfell Tower inferno in London in June 2017 – one that cost 72 lives – that has triggered the biggest reputational crisis it has faced since it was founded in Co Cavan in 1965.
One of its premium products, Kooltherm K15, was used as insulation on a small portion of the external cladding, some 5 per cent. That only happened because the Grenfell project ran out of insulation from the main supplier, a rival company called Celotex.
Kingspan has said it was completely unaware that K15 was used until after the fire, and it insists that it would have advised against its use if it had known. Nonetheless its use has drawn Kingspan into the spotlight, leading to searching, difficult questions about Kingspan’s safety checks.
Kingspan has argued its product was not a causal factor in the spread of fire by dint of the small amount used and the dangerous combination of materials used as cladding for the project, for which its advice had never been sought.
Lawyers at the Grenfell inquiry hearings in London who have questioned Kingspan executives over its testing and marketing strategy for K15 during hearings this month have taken a very different view. The inquiry will make its findings in 2022.
In those exchanges lawyers for victims have argued Kingspan’s claims around K15’s suitability for use in high-rise buildings raise serious concerns about the honesty and trustworthiness of its approach to marketing and testing its products.
Ahead of the hearings Kingspan admitted “shortcomings” in its tests and marketing literature. In October it dramatically withdrew three test results – including a key 2005 one – that were the linchpins of claims that Kooltherm K15 was “approved” and suitable for buildings over 18m tall.
“We have now concluded that three tests carried out in 2005 and 2014 featured product that was not sufficiently representative of the product currently sold into the market place,” a spokesman told The Irish Times.
Saying that it is confident that its product is safe, Kingspan said it has carried out extensive testing and re-testing, and cladding systems incorporating current K15 have successfully met the relevant criteria set by BR 135.
In relation to withdrawn tests and misleading marketing claims, it says: “These historical shortcomings should not have happened, and we offer a full and sincere apology for them, and an assurance that we have made substantial changes to ensure they cannot be repeated.”
Left on the defensive by the tests withdrawals, lawyers for the victims have made eviscerating criticism of Kingspan, accusing it of “seeking to trivialise its wrongdoing”, of abusing the fire-testing regime for high-rise buildings.
And they argued that Kingspan left the wrong impression for years that K15 could be safely used in buildings over 18m in height, regardless of construction type. “Kingspan’s unrepentant arrogance is truly chilling,” said Stephanie Barwise QC, who represents one group of victims.
For its part the inquiry’s own legal team has repeatedly put it to Kingspan witnesses that the company was far more interested in expanding and maintaining market share than in fire safety, and it misrepresented K15 in order to do so.
Executives have denied the claim, but the evidence at times has been deeply uncomfortable for a company that has grown to global size from small beginnings. For one its main in-house fire expert was a functioning drug addict for most of his time with Kingspan.
There was a litany of failed fire tests on K15, one that ended in a “raging inferno”. The results were never made public. It continued to rely on the 2005 test which was for a product no longer on the market, the inquiry heard
Few Irish companies can match Kingspan’s story. From small beginnings it is a €2 billion-a-year business that operates in 70 countries with 15,000 people employed, including nearly 1,500 of them in Ireland
Its reputation is built on superior and premium construction products such as Kooltherm, a phenolic rigid insulation board with a foil front that has sold superbly because of an incredible thermal performance and its thinness.
Everything changes in buildings higher than 18m, the height which firemen can reach from tenders and ladders on the ground. That is why higher fire-safety regulations apply on such buildings compared with smaller ones.
The market for insulation on high-rise buildings was growing in Britain and elsewhere, and Kingspan wanted its products used there. To do that K15 had to meet the standards set by an alphabet soup of classifications (BR135, LABC, BBA, C-s2 d0).
The most critical for Kingspan was the BS 8414 test which sees a fire set in a mock high-rise constructed with a cladding panel, cavity barriers, along with insulation. If temperature limits are exceeded or if flames go over the top of the rig then the test is failed.
Kingspan’s K15 passed the 8414 test in 2005 using a non-combustible mortar or cement cladding. However, it introduced a new K15 technology a year later that used a different process. Technically the 8414 test was no longer valid because this was a new K15.
In addition, the 2005 test meant K15 could only be used with cement/mortar cladding. However, Kingspan did not make that distinction in its literature, merely saying it was acceptable for use above 18m.
With technology changing, many high-rises were being constructed with steel frames.
In the years afterwards, Kingspan set up further 8414 tests. Two in 2007 and 2008 failed, one on a steel-frame rig that was described as a “raging inferno”. For the next 15 years Kingspan continued to use the 2005 test as its basis that K15 was approved even though it was for a different product.
It sought other certificates to build up K15’s case, including a Local Authority Building Control certificate that suggested K15 was a material of limited combustibility. Kingspan executives agreed in evidence to the inquiry it clearly was not.
“It is all garbage,” wrote a safety officer who examined the basis of the ‘limited combustibility’ certificate in 2015.
“Kingspan has gone out of its way since 2005 to ensure that the (8414) test had the broadest possible application,” claimed Ms Barwise in her opening statement, covering not just masonry buildings but steel-framed ones too.
A consultant, Wintech, called Kingspan out on its claims for its products, saying it failed to say that K15 was only suitable for masonry/cement in buildings over 18m.
Kingspan’s technical director Philip Heath wrote in a crude internal email that Wintech “could go f*** themselves and if they are not careful we will sue the arse of them”.
Kingspan’s inhouse specialist on fire testing, Ivor Meredith, had a serious drug problem which affected his work leading up to his dismissal in 2015. At his dismissal hearing he said Wintech had “outed” Kingspan.
He then said: “We then had to fabricate a story to say the product still did what it said on the tin…I said to my manager that we are stretching the truth here…We inferred to the industry that our product could do something that potentially it couldn’t.”
By 2014, K15 had been used on hundreds of buildings, but Kingspan was facing increasing questions. Wintech again reminded Kingspan of its public safety duties. “(We) trust Kingspan will behave in a responsible manner to properly resolve the doubt over the use of K15.”
It did two further 8414 tests in 2014 for which it claimed success, but it now accepts they were on research products and not K15 as sold on the market. They have now been withdrawn.
Similar approaches to testing were used by other manufacturers.
The main insulation provider for Grenfell, the British company Celotex, has admitted for its 8414 test that it used a magnesium-oxide board, which is a non-combustible material that is used in furnaces.
When another control body, the National House Building Council (NHBC) told Kingspan it intended telling developers of high-rise projects that K15 was not compliant with standards, Kingspan threatened legal action.
Dr Barbara Lane, of engineering consultants Arup, is now an expert witness to the inquiry. This month the inquiry heard Kingspan asked the Trinity College, Dublin graduate to verify its K15 test data on high-rise buildings. She was unable to give it a “positive review”.
In a letter to the NHBC, which by then was expressing concern about the incorrect use of test reports, Dr Lane wrote: “The use of highly combustible materials in residential buildings is now simply an accident waiting to happen.”
Kingspan’s view that K15 did not cause the Grenfell fire is not fully shared. In her opening address Ms Barwise accepted that very little of it was used, but added that expert opinion on the role it could have played in causing the rapid spread of flames is outstanding.
Given that much of what was used was used on the columns, she said, “it may be highly significant given the way columns acted as chimneys,” fuelled , as Dr Lane reported in Phase 1 (of the inquiry), by the insulation within them.
“Furthermore, in a general sense Kingspan’s actions were seminally causative in that it was at this time regarded as the industry leader and it set the precedent that combustible insulation could genuinely pass a BS 8414 test and so be used over 18m,” added Ms Barwise.
K15 has been used in hundreds of Irish buildings, including high-rises. Some well-known buildings such as the Central Bank, the Microsoft HQ and the headquarters of the Kerry Group have it installed.
The company’s own literature says K15 was used on the Aviva Stadium, but it now says that that was wrong. Still the description by Kingspan of its Aviva project included a reference to the unqualified claim it is “approved for use on builds over 18 meters”.
Replying to questions from The Irish Times on Friday, Kingspan said: “These matters do not reflect the organisation that we are or aspire to be, and significant actions have been taken and are in progress that further underpin our commitment to fire safety and to professional conduct. We continue to support the inquiry in its work and are determined to learn all necessary lessons.”
Following Grenfell, the Department of Housing in Dublin set up a task force though the State has few high-rises. Detailed fire assessments were requested in 226 cases, but the task force concluded that the Grenfell circumstances did not apply in Ireland.
Yet t at the time the new disclosures on K15 had not been made. Now the Department of Housing and other agencies are reviewing the new information provided by Kingspan to see if it has any implications here.
Besides the audit of high-rises here, the long-term response to Grenfell has been limited. The Department of Housing published new guidance that dealt with fire safety assessment of cladding systems on existing buildings.
There have been no fire safety improvements, and no ban on the use of combustible materials here, said Orla Hegarty, of the school of architecture in UCD. “In fact there has been a reduction in fire safety requirements for apartments in the last year.”
She says the State’s fire regulations have also inbuilt weaknesses since inspection and certification is not independent, and the regulatory authorities “don’t actively police or enforce” standards.
“We don’t have the historic tower blocks of the UK that have been over-clad like Grenfell. We do have very widespread use of materials like K15 including in schools and hospitals. To my knowledge five HSE buildings had remedial work after Grenfell due to cladding concerns.”
Dr Victor Hrymak, of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at Technological University, Dublin, agrees. “There is a need for stronger regulation. I would be concerned about hospitals and nursing homes, crèches, and shopping centres, places where you have large numbers of people in small spaces.”