A architectural firm hired for the controversial refurbishment of Grenfell Tower had never before worked on a high-rise residential tower block, the inquiry heard today.
Studio E Architects was first appointed by Kensington and Chelsea council in 2011 to design a new school and leisure centre, and the refurbishment of the nearby Grenfell housing block was later added to the works.
Andrzej Kuszell, a founder of Studio E, said the creation of the Kensington Academy and Leisure Centre (KALC) was a “highly-prized project” and his firm underwent a “rigorous” selection process, winning it as specialists in the design of schools and sports centres.
But he told the inquiry this morning Grenfell was added in later and formed no part of the process to select architects.
Asked about his company’s previous experience, Mr Kuszell confirm that prior to Grenfell they had not worked on overcladding a high-rise residential building, and had never before worked on the refurbishment of a large tower block.
He accept there were a “different set of challenges” between refurbishing a high-rise block and building a school or sports facility, but told the hearing: “I’m a founder of the practice, and there was a time when every project that we did was a new project. There was a first extension to a school, a first small sports facility.
“We did all our projects to a very high standard even though they were the first. If the implication is that we were somehow not capable of doing the project, that is false.
“There comes a time when every project is a first. And we had actually been dealing with projects of quite some sophistication and complexity as firsts.”
Mr Kuszell, who was not involved in the Grenfell project day-to-day, was shown emails between colleagues who discussed council fears that the tower was its “worst property asset” and would be a “poor cousin” to the new school next door.
He refused to be drawn on whether he considered the block an “eyesore”, but told the hearing: “This was an upgrade of a very large swathes of that part of Kensington.
“You could see why the council might be thinking it’s a good idea to upgrade the tower. I clearly could see it would be a good idea to upgrade the tower if it was a good time to do it.”
Mr Kuszell said he remembered the cladding of the tower being “as much to do with the thermal performance…as to do with improving the appearance of the building”.
Asked if Grenfell was seen as a “problem for KALC which needed to be solved”, he replied: “I don’t think we ever saw it that way. We saw it as a constraint on the site.”
Inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick began today’s hearing by confirming that witnesses have been guaranteed by Attorney General Suella Braverman that any answers to the inquiry will not be used against them in any future criminal prosecution.
“No one is able to justify refusing to answer questions on the grounds that to do so would or might expose himself or herself personally to a risk of prosecution”, he said.
Mr Kuszell’s evidence had to be stopped just seconds after starting when two men began shouting that the Attorney General’s decision was a “disgrace” and the inquiry should be stopped.
Some of the Grenfell survivors group angrily confronted the demonstrators over the outburst, and told the chairman when the session resumed: “These people are not bereaved or survivors. We don’t condone this kind of action.”
Sir Martin told them: “I was slightly surprised because, during the phase one hearings I was very impressed by the way in which everyone listened to the witnesses in a respectful and dignified way.
“Obviously, you may hear things that you don’t like to hear and people may feel strongly about some of the evidence, but it’s very important if the inquiry is hearing evidence it needs to har to get to the bottom of things, that the witnesses are allowed to give their evidence with dignity and respect from everyone.”
The inquiry into the disaster which killed 72 people in 2017 is now looking in detail at how the 24-storey tower came to be covered in flammable material which fuelled the spread of flames after an electrical fault with a fridge freezer.
The hearing continues.
Source: Evening Standard UK