How a Suffolk company manipulated the fire test for Grenfell insulation
- Credit: PA Wire/Grenfell Tower Inquiry
With an advert showing a pink and white hot air balloon, underneath the words “Reaching New Heights”, Hadleigh company Celotex was in a buoyant mood when it launched its new insulation panels in August 2014.
“We have once again demonstrated our innovative credentials,” it boasted on its blog.
For the first time, they said, their insulation could be used on buildings over 18 metres high, after passing a fire test called British Standard 8414.
But as we are now finding out from the ongoing inquiry into the Grenfell disaster, the way Celotex got the product, which it called RS5000, through the fire test was “unacceptable”.
It would mean that when the fatal fire, which killed 72 people, began on June 14 2017, the tower was covered in insulation which had not been properly tested.
The man who led the project said in November that Celotex had carried out a “fraud on the market”.
Hundreds of pages of witness statements, company emails and presentations from the time, which have now been released for the inquiry, reveal in disturbing detail how and why they did it.
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Hadleigh, where Celotex is based, is an affluent market town in a picturesque part of south Suffolk. It is the opposite to the England of the Grenfell estate in west London, but decisions made there are now at the centre of the inquiry.
Since 2012 Celotex had been owned by a French firm called Saint Gobain - a massive multinational corporation.
When it bought Celotex, Saint Gobain wanted to see a return on its investment and gave management a target of increasing profits by 15%.
In 2012, head of marketing Paul Evans, created a document called “lost opportunities”.
He identified that cracking the insulation market on buildings over 18m could help drive profits. They thought this market could be worth almost £15m.
The only product on the 18m and above market at that time was made by Celotex’s rivals, Kingspan, and they wanted to compete.
They already had a product, an insulation named FR5000. They just needed to get it through a fire safety test and they could launch it as being suitable for tower blocks.
However, rather than give the job to an industry expert, they handed it in early 2013 to a new recruit; business graduate, Jon Roper.
Fresh out of the University of East Anglia, with no qualifications or experience of insulation, Mr Roper would find out an impressive amount about the industry - and how to mislead it.
In 2013, Mr Roper asked a colleague called Jamie Hayes to help him with his research.
“We were finding our way together,” Mr Hayes recalled.
Rivals Kingspan, they discovered, was not being open with the market about their insulation.
They had a product called K15 used in buildings over 18m, but Mr Roper found out the test they had used to pass it did not include cladding normally found on high rise buildings.
Instead, they tested it with a cement board, rather than more combustible cladding, such as aluminium composite material, or ACM, the type used at Grenfell.
Mr Roper wrote at the time that he was “astonished as to how K15 is used so widely based on testing involving a cement particle board”.
His boss, Paul Evans later claimed in his witness statement that he wanted to “test a system that was more representative of what was actually being used in the market”.
But this is not how things worked out.
By February 2014, Celotex was ready to try out their insulation. A fire rig was set up at a test centre in Watford and was overseen by a safety engineer called Phil Clark from a company called BRE Global.
It did not go well.
“Once the fire had started, the cladding started to crack and gaps appeared until holes became apparent,” Mr Hayes recalled. “At 28 minutes, the fire was put out with a hose as there was fire coming out of the top of the structure.”
The test had cost around £25,000 and they had nothing to show for it.
“I thought this might be the end of the above 18m project as we had exhausted our budget,” Mr Roper later wrote.
He called his boss, Mr Evans from the car on the way home.
“There was a lot of emotion (from Roper and Evans) related to the first test result,” Mr Hayes said in his witness statement to the inquiry.
“I felt that this was linked to the pressure from Saint Gobain regarding the budget.”
At this point the chances of this insulation getting anywhere near a tower block like Grenfell should have been slim.
Estimates Celotex made before the test put their chances of passing it with ACM cladding at just 50%.
But rather than making any changes to the safety of their product, they decided to change the materials on the test rig and try again.
In spring 2014, Mr Hayes came up with an idea to help pass at the second attempt.
They would insert a board made from magnesium oxide behind the cladding to resist the fire.
“I felt that there was significant pressure from upper management to pass the second test,” he said in his witness statement.
“I was eager to demonstrate my value to the company and so strived to come up with the amendments to the fire barriers and the rig.”
Mr Hayes said he took his idea to Mr Roper and Mr Evans and they agreed to it, something Mr Evans denied.
They also decided, Mr Hayes said, to increase the thickness of the cladding boards from 8mm to 12mm, to again slow the spread of the fire.
Mr Roper said this was the idea of Mr Clark from BRE. On May 2, the test was re-run, again under the supervision of Mr Clark.
Mr Roper, who was there, said this time it “was quickly apparent that the 12mm panel made a significant difference”. It passed, but they still had problems.
They had done it by erecting a testing rig that bore little resemblance to the materials the product would be used with in the real world.
They thought that it would not go down well with the industry, Mr Hayes recalled.
“From conversations between Mr Roper and Mr Evans to which I was privy, I was aware that there were concerns that a rig with the (magnesium oxide boards) present would not be representative of what the market would want to use in their buildings,” he said.
So before marketing RS5000, Celotex would have to cover up how it actually passed the test.
That cover up began almost two weeks later when, on May 14, Mr Roper emailed a slideshow to Mr Evans designed to update senior management on the project.
Mr Roper claimed Mr Evans asked him to redo the slides, removing mention of the magnesium oxide boards and the first failed test. Mr Evans denied this.
But when it came to marketing and informing the sales staff, there was no mention of the boards or the first failed test. Mr Roper admitted when questioned at the inquiry in November that he knew the new slides were misleading.
Perhaps more importantly, the BRE report, which gave Celotex the approval it needed to market the product for buildings above 18m, also failed to mention the magnesium oxide boards.
BRE has blamed Celotex for this stating the use of the boards were “not declared” by Celotex.
“BRE does not understand why a test sponsor would wish to conceal a component in a cladding system,” it said in its witness statement. They added that with or without the boards, the testing rig used was different to what was installed at Grenfell.
But the former Celotex staff said Mr Clark from BRE was well aware of the magnesium oxide boards.
In one email Mr Roper even asked Mr Clark to remove a photo from BRE’s final report which showed the boards.
Mr Roper said he raised his concerns with Mr Evans in June 2014 but did not escalate them beyond that.
He told the inquiry: “I recall going home that evening, and I still lived with my parents at the time and mentioned that to them, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable with what I was being asked to do.”
Mr Evans denied this. “I was informed that the system had met the performance criteria for the test on the day by Mr Roper,” he said in his statement. “I was pleased for the business and those that had been working on the project.”
In one of the more bizarre sentences of any witness statement in the inquiry he wrote: “With the benefit of hindsight it seems that I was unaware of what I was aware of.”
He also claimed that it was for architects and Celotex’s customers to satisfy themselves that the insulation was safe for their projects. However, none of Celotex’s marketing was honest about how it passed the test.
Mr Hayes said these omissions were deliberate. “A decision was made and conveyed to me that it (magnesium oxide boards) would not be referred to within the BRE's final report or included in Celotex marketing of the rig.”
According to his evidence, the company’s senior leadership knew about the use of the boards.
So, how did they justify these decisions?
Mr Hayes said they believed that the insulation would have passed anyway without the boards. Indeed, in a test in April 2018, set up similar to the one in May 2014, but without the boards, it did pass.
Off to market
On August 5 Celotex launched RS5000. They held a sales team meeting in Hadleigh, before sending out press releases, social media posts and marketing to architects.
There was one element they were continuously keen to highlight in the marketing. The insulation was “acceptable for use in buildings over 18 metres in height,” they claimed.
Celotex knew there was a huge caveat to that, but industry regulator Local Authority Building Control (LABC) did not and quickly gave them approval for the product.
They even let Mr Roper send them the wording for the certificate they issued on it - again with no mention of the boards or how the test had really been passed.
It was this misleading certificate that Celotex later emailed to the subcontractor of Grenfell, Harley Facades.
Mr Roper admitted to the inquiry: “I went along with a lot of actions at Celotex that, looking back on reflection, were completely unethical. I thought this was standard practice albeit it did sit very uncomfortably with me.”
Even Celotex’s own sales staff were not told the truth and one, Jonathan Roome, the man who later helped sell the insulation to Harley Facades, told the inquiry that they were told so little he could not answer customers’ queries about it.
In another missed chance to stop the insulation ending up on Grenfell, he even drafted an email to customers, which was never sent, stating they should look at other options to insulate over 18m in height.
Mr Hayes, however, did know as he fielded calls from customers about if RS5000 really could be used above 18m.
He would tell them: “Potentially they could, but that they should consider their decision in conjunction with a document which detailed the test, this being the Celotex compliance guide.”
However, that guide did not “detail the test”. It made no mention of the magnesium oxide boards.
“I was aware that we were referring potential customers to a compliance guide for a rig that was not the same as the one that was tested,” Mr Hayes admitted.
But despite their efforts to cover it up one body did start ringing alarm bells.
The National House Building Council (NHBC) - a company which approves construction projects - was not fooled by Celotex’s marketing. They had several concerns about the way the test had been passed - and this was without them knowing about the magnesium oxide panels.
Celotex wanted the NHBC’s approval so it could sell RS5000 to new-builds. It was an important part of its marketing and Mr Roper emailed colleagues in March 2015: “My gut feeling is that as soon as we start to indicate to cladding contractors that we are unlikely to be accepted on NHBC projects, this will diminish any potential sales.”
By that point they had been negotiating with NHBC for months about getting approval.
In September 2014 the NHBC said their fire safety test was “not sufficiently representative” and had not been carried out on designs normally found on high-rises.
“The overall fire behaviour indicated that the facade had only limited fire resistance,” they wrote in an email.
NHBC even told Celotex the test had been “overengineered deliberately”, Mr Roper said.
The NHBC wanted them to test RS5000 with ACM panels, but in yet another missed chance it was not.
Mr Roper said in his witness statement: “We believed that an ACM panel was likely to melt (with RS5000).”
It got worse for Celotex. By May 2015, the NHBC told them in one meeting that their arguments for getting approval were “stupid”.
And in spring of that year, it even told one company, Ardmore Construction, which Celotex had sold RS5000 to, that it could not approve their project because of its concerns about the insulation.
Ardmore were furious, writing to Celotex: “Clearly you are an international supplier and manufacturer of some repute and we are amazed that you send products to market that are not suitable for their intended use. You must have test data for these products, which you appear to be reluctant to share with [us], is there some technical reason for your reluctance?”
But Mr Evans recalled: “There was some back and forth internally over how to respond to them but the NHBC ultimately changed their view and accepted the use of RS5000 on this project, because of some aspect of the building design, which I think had to do with the balconies.”
Celotex were now looking at carrying out further tests on RS5000 to get NHBC approval.
But then in 2016, NHBC changed its mind. It said Celotex’s product, as well as Kingspan’s insulation, K15, which was also installed at Grenfell, could be used on buildings over 18m, including with the type of cladding on the tower.
Mr Evans told the inquiry he was surprised.
Last week some clues as to what caused this about-face emerged at the inquiry.
Kingspan was threatening legal action against NHBC after it asked it to provide testing data to show that K15 was safe.
Kingspan’s solicitors wrote to the NHBC in 2015: “Our client considered it will be left with no alternative but to protect its position by applying to the court for an injunction preventing the NHBC from making the statements you propose in relation to the K15 boards.”
On to Grenfell
In August 2014, Celotex salesman Jonathan Roome emailed a designer at Harley Facades, promoting RS5000. He got a response a few weeks later.
Harley Facades were helping to refurbish Grenfell and were interested in using the insulation panels.
He said in his witness statement that the sales literature contained the caveat about the fire test, although as before there was no mention of the magnesium oxide boards.
However, he said he pushed for more tests to be done on RS5000, because customers were asking for more testing data.
“I got to the point where I could no longer promote RS5000 because I could not provide the information customers wanted,” Mr Roome told the inquiry. “The testing of RS5000 was limited to the one cladding system and in order to show compliance, customers were asking for more data to undertake their desktop studies.”
Mr Evans said although they did not carry out any more fire tests, they did do various desktop studies between 2015 and the Grenfell fire to model how RS5000 would perform.
“These studies considered a variety of cladding panels,” he said.
Mr Roome quit, but Celotex went on to sell the insulation to Harley Facades. At the time, it was just another deal and when news of the tragedy broke, Mr Evans said it did not even occur to him that it was Celotex’s insulation on the building.
What do they say now?
Head of marketing, Paul Evans left Celotex in 2018. He told the inquiry that he did not intend to mislead with the marketing for RS5000 and put much of the blame with Mr Roper.
“There were too few people undertaking too many tasks with insufficient experience and resources and neither overall oversight from the Board of Directors or adequate external support,” he said.
“Too much reliance was placed upon Mr Roper's understanding of the regulatory background.”
Jon Roper resigned from Celotex in April 2016. He told the inquiry that he knew what they were doing was wrong.
“I felt entirely uncomfortable, but equally useless in the whole lead-up from testing through to marketing through to launch,” he said.
“I knew there was going to be a level of questioning that came into the business post-launch that would essentially mean that I would have to lie for commercial gain again.”
Jamie Hayes also left in 2018. He told the inquiry: “I lacked the life experience to find the right way forward and it was a failure of courage, and a failure of character and a failure of moral fibre on my part not to do so.”
Celotex no longer sells insulation for buildings above 18m but is still owned by Saint Gobain and makes insulation at Hadleigh.
It went on to report profits of £6m in 2014, almost doubling to £10m in 2015.
The company said in a statement that when they investigated after the fire “certain issues emerged concerning the testing, certification and marketing of Celotex’s products which were previously unknown to Celotex’s current management”.
“Once established, they were promptly and publicly announced by notices on Celotex’s website and reported to (among others) the relevant testing/certification bodies, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Trading Standards, the Metropolitan Police and the Inquiry.
“These matters involved unacceptable conduct on the part of a number of former employees. They should not have happened and Celotex has taken concerted steps to ensure that no such issues reoccur.
“Celotex is committed to cooperating fully with the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and related investigations, continuing to support the UK Government’s ongoing response to the tragedy.”
BRE said it would be making further submissions to the inquiry in the coming weeks.