Cladding isn’t a word entrepreneur Peter Johnson ever imagined would become so controversial. But that all changed in June 2017 when a tragic blaze ripped through Grenfell Tower killing 72 people.
Johnson is the chairman and founder of Vivalda Group, a supplier of external claddings which had no involvement in Grenfell Tower and specialises in non-combustible building materials.
He says: “People would previously ask what my job was and I had a competition with myself to see how many milliseconds it would take for their eyes to glaze over.”
This month the public’s eyes are wide open about cladding, which in its simplest term means the skin on the outside of a building. It is the bit we all get to see and its purpose is to keep the weather out and make exteriors look attractive.
There has long been speculation over the potential part aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding may have played in the Grenfell fire. And, just under a fortnight ago, a judge leading the Grenfell Tower Inquiry published a long-awaited report.
Among the findings was that the “principal reason” why the flames spread so rapidly up, down and around the building, was the presence of ACM rainscreen panels with polyethylene cores.
A second phase of the inquiry will try to establish why and by whom the decision to install the flammable cladding system was made.
Sitting in his North Acton office shortly after the latest report came out, Johnson says: “Grenfell was a human catastrophe and we must never see the like of it again.”
He says Vivalda does sell ACM in small quantities but only for restricted uses such as shop signs. Never for high-rise buildings.
The 62-year-old adds that his firm has only ever sold non-combustible cladding for tall properties and lost out on contracts to competitors willing to sell cheaper ACM. “We were never going to follow that path,” he says.
His 20-year-old company mainly supplies rock-fibre, fibre-cement and glass-reinforced cladding panels. They are basically made from inert materials dug out of the ground and compressed. The products are imported from countries including Denmark and Holland, and Vivalda cuts them to bespoke sizes before distributing them.
Vivalda’s cladding has been used on hotels and homes. Recent work includes supplying an Old Oak Common development with products.
So why are there so many different types of cladding? Johnson explains that until the 1980s the most common form of cladding was bricks, but as housing demand soared and construction times shortened, architects and property developers looked to other products.
Today other forms of cladding include solid aluminium, glass-fibre reinforced concrete, and rock-fibre. These are all classified as non-combustible.
Johnson, who grew up in South Yorkshire, first got into the industry as a salesman for building materials supplier FGF in 1980. Previously he had done a fitter machinist apprenticeship with the Royal Engineers.
After 18 years at FGF, during which he became a director, a then 41-year-old Johnson needed a break. He jokes: “It’s a difficult time in any man’s life.”
Cue a road trip in America, on a Harley-Davidson. Johnson went to visit the grave of one of his idols, comedian Stan Laurel, and spotted the name Vivalda on a salmon-pink gravestone. “I can’t explain it, but something inside me liked the name and I decided there and then I would set up my own firm.”
Starting up wasn’t easy, recalls Johnson, who was living with his wife and two kids in Nottingham at the time. He put in £15,000 of his own savings and got a £38,000 bank loan.
That was used for a small workshop in Acton. Johnson would spend five days a week there, sleeping on a pull-out armchair in the office at night. He invested the dosh in a forklift truck, supplies and cutting materials.
Getting paid for jobs wasn’t always simple either: “This is the construction industry, and the last thing people do is beat a path to your door with a cheque.”
The London-headquartered group gradually expanded and now has 11 sites across Britain. It is owned by Johnson and his management team.
Johnson says: “People do recognise in us we have expertise and we’re certainly seeing a flight to quality as contractors flee the risky end of the cladding market. And a lot of that is because architects are rightly encouraging them to do so.”
Cladding will, rightfully, be subject to much more scrutiny from now on.
This article appears in the Evening Standard