Union Monitors School Building Committee Vote on Hanlon-Deerfield School Construction Materials


Image of imagined exterior of portion of Hanlon-Deerfield school, from School Building Committee Presentation of February 11, 2022.

On Friday morning, March 4, 2022, Westwood’s School Building Committee will vote on removing Kingspan Kooltherm K15 insulation board from a list of items that the committee previously approved to be used in construction of a new Hanlon-Deerfield school. The vote is a new agenda item, officially announced on Tuesday morning this week. The agenda addition follows issues of safety raised by the union, International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers (SMART).

In a September meeting last year, the eighteen attending members of the committee unanimously voted to approve the use of a list of six proprietary items, as requested by architectural firm Dore + Whittier. Specific approval was necessary where Dore + Whittier proposed to use certain products in the absence of competitive bidding. Along with five other products, the firm proposed to use Kingspan Kooltherm insulation Board for thermal insulation in the new school construction.

In materials describing the insulation, Dore + Whittier stated its belief that Kingspan’s K15 rainscreen board insulation would allow for significant cost savings. It noted that similar products that achieve its R-factor and complies with NFPA 285 testing could not be found. Kingspan marketing materials, which Dore + Whittier appears to have relied upon, state that the material’s R-value is 16 on insulation of 2” thickness, and that the material is NFPA 285 compliant. NFPA 285 testing refers to a testing standard for understanding how fire spreads on an exterior wall, as set forth by the National Fire Protection Association.

Months after the School Building Committee voted to approve the K15 insulation’s use, however, potential issues of safety have come to light. On February 9, 2022, the School Building Committee was contacted by SMART regarding the potential combustibility of Kingspan’s K15 insulation. SMART also contacted the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is providing funds of approximately $18 million for constructing a consolidated Hanlon-Deerfield Elementary School.

“It’s very hard to track where specific building materials are. Public projects are more transparent than the private sector,” says Ms. Meredith Schafer, SMART researcher.

Ms. Schafer's February letter to the School Building Committee, on behalf of SMART, described the failure of Kingspan from 2006 to 2015 to show the ability to pass a large scale fire test using the same version of K15 that was on the market. A different version, other than what was being sold, had been tested, she stated. SMART also alleged Kingspan engaged in misleading marketing. It states, “For years, Kingspan issued misleading marketing literature and advice (“letters of suitability”) to use K15 in configurations for which it was never tested, and in some cases, for which it had failed tests.”

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SMART noted that Mercedes-Benz quickly ended a week-long affiliation with Kingspan last December when “[s]urvivors and bereaved of the Grenfell Tower Fire had called on Mercedes to cancel the partnership.”

All of K15 insulation that is sold in the United States is manufactured in the United Kingdom. In the UK, Kingspan is involved what is being called the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. The government inquiry includes, among other things, investigating the use of K15 in about 5 percent of the insulation used in the Grenfell Tower housing project. The Grenfell Tower caught fire in 2017, resulting in the death of 72 people.

SMART does not appear to be actively speaking out against the manufacturers of other products associated with the majority (95 percent) of the insulation that was used in Grenfell Tower. Regarding the Hanlon-Deerfield school construction, SMART researcher Meredith Schafer notes, “We feel like it's not just about K15 but it is about the company and its role in the Grenfell Inquiry and we don’t feel that any of its insulation products should be used in this project. This is a big project and a showcase project. This is something the company could use to market its product."

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry brought to light what at least one UK government official has called a misleading approach to Kingspan’s certification of materials.

“In written and verbal testimony, former Kingspan staff have accepted that their approach to certification of the materials was ‘fundamentally misleading,’” Gove says, “and that they definitely knew that it was more combustible than they portrayed; and that their approach was ‘to get away with as much as possible.’”

--CNN Sports staff, Mercedes ends partnership with firm whose insulation was used in Grenfell Tower, Dec. 9, 2021 (quoting United Kingdom Housing Secretary Michael Gove).

In December 2021, the UK’s National Regulator for Construction Products, the Office for Product Safety and Standards, ordered that Kingspan Insulation Ltd. cease supplying non-compliant K15 insulation board. In stating that Kingspan’s supply of the material performed at "a lower level" than what was described, the regulator ordered Kingspan to recall some of Kooltherm K15 products manufactured between August 1, 2021 and October 18, 2021. It is unclear the extent to which the order that originated in the UK would affect Kingspan materials that are sold in the United States.

SMART, a North American union with over 203,000 members, is made up of sheet metal workers, service technicians, bus operators, railroad engineers, conductors, sign workers, welders, production employees and more. It also represents workers who manufacture fire safety products.

Ms. Schafer hopes that the School Building Committee will do more than just remove K15 from its approved list of proprietary materials to be used in constructing the Hanlon-Deerfield school. “Removing it from that list doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be used in the project. We would want assurance that it wasn’t going to be used in the school,” she says.

SMART issued a report in October 2021, “Kingspan and the Grenfell Tower Inquiry,” on findings about Kingspan’s approach to fire safety. In the introduction to that report, SMART states, “Given the critical work of architects, specifiers, and project managers in ensuring the fire and life safety of all who occupy and visit structures that they design, we want to bring this information to your attention.”

Thanks to Ms. Meredith Schafer for speaking with Westwood Minute.

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