Fire, fury and philanthropy

How charitable flooring companies helped ease the pain of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

IT was just before 1am on 14 June 2017 when a fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, West London.

By the time it had devastated the building, 70 people were dead while a further two died in hospital. More than 70 others were injured and 223 escaped.

Before the fire, Grenfell’s first-floor car park had since 1999 been home to the Dale Youth Boxing Club which was a valued local resource and recognised as one of the UK’s best.

Before being moved to Grenfell, the club had begun in the grounds of a morgue in Notting Hill. It’s now credited with turning around the lives of many young people, as well as producing Olympic gold medal winner James DeGale and world champion George Groves, along with nurturing 200 Amateur Boxing Association champions since it was founded 60 years ago.

After the club was wrecked by water damage during the fire, a fundraising drive amassed £50,000 and meant members could operate out of a car park. The club’s popularity was undiminished and the car park had to be extended to accommodate its large membership.

But it was open to the elements and they had to share space with anybody who needed the area.

Their plight caught the attention of DIY SOS: The Big Build, the BBC’s flagship renovation programme which has been running for nearly 20 years in a primetime slot on BBC One, attracting five million viewers an episode. Presented by Nick Knowles and a team of industry experts, the programme takes on big builds for communities and people who need this kind of help.

Previous recipients of DIY SOS include a centre for a children’s charity in Peterborough (2013) and a Blackpool respite centre for young carers (2016). In 2015, even Princes Harry and William helped volunteers renovate an entire street in Manchester and homes for injured service veterans.

DIY SOS decided to undertake the Grenfell Project to oversee the building of a shared site for the boxing club and a community hub under the A40 Westway, only metres from the tower shell, located on St Marks Road and known as Bay 20.

Speaking about the project, Nick Knowles said at the time, ‘It’s the biggest and morally most important project we’ve done in a long time.’
To build the club and community hub, though, several donations would be needed from volunteers, and this was where Erith-based Arcadia Flooring, headed by Gary Perry, enters the picture. Gary’s wife was travelling home one day when she saw an advert in the Metro in London, calling for volunteer contractors to organise the donation of flooring products (and their time) to complete the project.

‘I’ve been successful because I work hard,’ says Gary when I meet him and his sales manager, Seda Sadrettin (who is also his sister-in-law) at the gleaming new community hub in November 2018. ‘But we feel fortunate for our success so I decided at that point it was time to give something back to the community.’       

Gary asked Seda to email DIY SOS, signalling Arcadia’s interest in volunteering. ‘It was like it was meant to be,’ said Gary, adding that DIY SOS had also advertised for contractors on LinkedIn.

Seda received a comprehensive response within two weeks.

‘I’d just finished the London Marathon where I ran to raise money for the National Autistic Society,’ she says. ‘I was going on holiday to recover when the guy from DIY SOS emailed me the drawings and spoke about the specifications, giving me an idea of what to get materials for.’

Seda emailed contacts she thought might be able to help her get the donated materials. ‘When I returned from my recovery holiday, I had so much to sort out with everyday work that had piled up, then the DIY SOS guy contacted me.’

With work on the club and the community hub due to go live in just 10 days, he’d been panicking that Seda wasn’t going to phone him. ‘I haven’t heard from you,’ he said. ‘Is everything still on track?’

Seda told him she’d already received donations in the form of the materials needed, which pleasantly surprised him.

The building for the hub was provided by Westway Trust, the custodian of the 23 acres of land under the A40 motorway to help promote positive use of the spaces. ‘This building is for the whole community with Grenfell in mind because it impacted everybody,’ explains Seda. ‘Kids came out of their houses that night and watched the fire. Even if they didn’t live there, they had schoolfriends who did.’

The first time Gary and Seda visited the site and saw the shell that Grenfell had become after the fire, they counted their blessings for not having witnessed it. ‘When we got off the train and saw it, we stopped talking,’ says Seda. ‘I mean, what do you say? Seeing the devastation in the media is one thing, but waking up everyday and seeing that…’ Her voice trails off.

Work started at 3pm on 21 May 2018, but not without an immense amount of effort going into the project. ‘There was a lot of sorting out with manufacturers and reps,’ says Gary, ‘but everyone was phenomenal from start-to-finish and I was thrilled we were part of it. I had to keep reminding myself that we wouldn’t have been involved if my wife hadn’t spotted that advert.’

Gary knew from the plans he’d seen that flooring was required for all the buildings but that the specification was loose. ‘I knew they wanted vinyl in the hub and it had to be hardwearing because you don’t want to put something down only for the community to be left with a big bill when it doesn’t last.’

Seda had reached out to Arcadia’s contacts such as Charlotte Dacey, business development at Altro; David Guscott, sales executive, Kingsmead Carpets; Mark Healy, national accounts residential sales manager at Amtico; Suzanne Harvey, contract sales and specification manager, Gerflor; Jonny Fisher, midlands and southern regional manager, Gradus and Gary Knowles, technical sales manager, Tremco.

She would later, after a mini-crisis at the community centre, call on Jim Flockhart, sales director at STS Flooring Distributors, and Adrian Laffey, managing director of Mercado at Headlam for help, of which more later.

‘I have a good working relationship with Charlotte as we do a lot of business with Altro,’ says Seda. ‘I then got onto Amtico and Gradus for the nosings and, as we’re doing a big project with Kingsmead, I emailed David. We didn’t need much but it still came in handy.’

Arcadia even got involved with flooring suppliers it hadn’t previously used such as Mercado. ‘When they discovered what we were doing for the Grenfell community, they contacted us to help and turned up with loads of adhesive and nose screed.’

Seda says Arcadia got lucky with Tremco. ‘They gave us as much screed, adhesive and DPM as we needed for both buildings – and there was a lot of it.’

During the installation, Arcadia was hit by a mini-crisis when the upper floor of the hub flooded with rainwater. ‘Gary called me and said: ‘I need a set of armbands up here there is so much water’,’ says Seda. ‘after it dried the team needed extra screed and when it was sent over so quickly, I thought to myself: ‘What a nice industry we work in. When you do raise the alarm for help for something that’s a genuine need, everybody comes together.’

And they weren’t short of labour, either. When the pallets of screed and DPM turned up, Arcadia was inundated with people wanting to help. Further complicating matters was the fact that access to the building was often blocked because so much material was being dug up. (Gary likens it to The Krypton Factor, a long-running game show in which contestants from across the UK and Ireland competed in a series of rounds that tested their physical stamina and mental attributes.)

On the first night of the project, Arcadia was under pressure to lay the DPM and the screed immediately or risk disrupting the entire construction schedule. Right on cue, the contractors encountered their first major problem - there was no water supply to lay the screed, so Gary had to search the nearby properties for a tap.

‘Sure enough, I found one attached to the external wall of a neighbouring unit that belonged to a florist. I told them we were contractors in need of a water supply so they allowed us to run a 150m hose from their place to the hub. They were concerned we might end up using thousands of litres of water, so I bought them a box of chocolates and reassured them we wouldn’t.’  

Now that Arcadia had water, however, another problem cropped up: it needed the area cleared of all other trades so the DPM and screed could be laid. ‘I realise it was difficult to shut down the site,’ said Gary, ‘but for the DPM and screed to be laid, I had to dig in my heels. I told them we needed everybody out.’

The foreman agreed to close the area for six hours but Gary insisted on longer. ‘We need 14 hours,’ he said. ‘My guys will work flat-out to get it done in that time.’

Having started at 3pm, Arcadia had to be finished screeding by 4am the next morning so the other trades could commence their work. As Gary promised, the Arcadia floorlayers worked like nobody’s business.

‘After several hours, we went home for half-an-hour naps, then returned to start again,’ says Gary. ‘In the trade, that’s called ‘ghosting’, although technically a real ‘ghosting’ means working through the whole night. I can honestly say we’ve never worked so hard.’

Gary says he wasn’t concerned about his own wellbeing but didn’t want to see his employees ‘walking around like Frankenstein’. ‘I felt for them, they needed to rest, so we took a break.’

Although the first hurdle had been overcome, Seda was concerned about the lack of manpower. ‘It was just five of us to start with but I quickly realised we needed more guys. Fortunately, in addition to our full timers we have several subcontractors who work with us regularly, and they were happy to support this. We were also overwhelmed by a couple of guys who we hadn’t worked with before, Connor and James, who through our agency contacts offered to help out at no charge.’

In all, seven floorlayers, including Gary, were involved in the project at any one time. ‘And there was me, bossing everyone around,’ Seda laughs.

Gary concurs: ‘She was cracking the whip, alright.’

‘They were here doing the hard work, I was doing the coordination, ensuring everyone knew what went where, what colours to use, speaking to the DIY people to ensure the right areas were cleared for us. It was a logistical nightmare,’ Seda continues.

‘But we’re used to it now,’ says Gary. ‘Years ago, flooring used to be the last thing down, but times have changed and it’s now all about how quickly you do the work.’

The next challenge for Gary and his floorlayers was the flooring in the toilets and shower cubicles which had to be laid quickly because tradesmen were waiting to complete the plumbing.

‘We were working in a very small area with between 20 to 30 other tradespeople,’ says Gary. ‘So, there we were trying to get the flooring down and there’s a tiler in one corner and a plumber in the other. We had to wrestle for the areas without causing drama. And in the back of my mind, I was always thinking ‘I must get this done by Friday’. Everybody looked stressed and had beads of sweat running down their faces – it was intense. There was never a problem with the materials, it was all about getting the areas prepared as quickly as possible.’

Each morning, Gary woke up with an action plan but, before he could execute it, it would be torpedoed by new developments. For instance, he approached the foreman, expecting to be able to work on a certain area only to be told ‘No, could you go somewhere else?’ This meant that something apparently as simple as planning each day was a challenge, and it was particularly tricky for floorlayers.
‘Those doing the walls, for instance, didn’t have to lay over people whereas we did,’ Gary points out.  

In total, Arcadia laid about 1,200sq m of flooring. As the project progressed, Arcadia realised it needed more flooring than it had in some areas. ‘Amtico started at 360sq m, then we needed an extra 60sq m,’ says Seda. ‘Somehow the building grew. But we were lucky because, when we went back to the manufacturers and asked for more, it was never an issue. I didn’t want to ask them as they’d already donated once but they didn’t blink.’

So, who supplied what for the hub? Altro donated Altro Aquarius for the showers and water closets (WCs) in both buildings and for the community centre fire escape.

Harrogate twist carpets were provided for the counselling and sensory rooms by Kingsmead Carpets while Amtico gave its Access Sunbleached Oak LVT for the community centre, lobby, social kitchen dining area, meeting rooms and corridors and the boxing gym office.

Gradus donated the stair-nosings and matting in both buildings and Tremco provided the DPM (ES100), latex (SX300) and adhesive (SF108) for both buildings. After the flooding on the upper floor, STS Flooring Distributors gave lengths of CAT 5LE SF brushed stainless-steel trims for the boxing gym shower areas, 50mm Sigur tape, and quick-dry screed (provided the same day it was requested).

Meanwhile, Mercado pitched in with an emergency delivery to help when the upper floor flooded a second time. It provided Ardex NA feather finish (six units); Uzin 2000s (six units); F Ball & Co F61 2 large tins; F Ball & Co F44 (two units); and Gradus BU 800 (two boxes).
And Planners Services & Sundries authorised various items being supplied at cost price.

When asked to single out one area he’s most satisfied with, Gary says: ‘Amtico to me looks really good – it’s durable and effective. It goes well with the Gradus stair-nosings as you walk down the stairs. It’s all aesthetically pleasing; good craftmanship is evident throughout, though, so I don’t want to take anything away from anyone else because the whole project is impressive.’

Amtico’s Mark Healy says the company was in a review meeting with Galliard Homes, a British residential property developer based in Loughton, when they mentioned plans for the Grenfell community centre and asked if Amtico would like to be involved.

‘We were, of course, honoured and delighted to contribute to such a worthy cause, so after consultation with Galliard and the installers, Arcadia Flooring, we decided to use the Amtico Access and Entryway collections,’ says Mark. ‘Both products were ideal in achieving the desired performance and aesthetics of the project, while also being more practical for the tight installation deadline.

‘Everyone involved is incredibly pleased with the results and, on behalf of Amtico, we hope the new facilities help the courageous people of the Grenfell community.’

With respect to Gradus, marketing director, Anthony Roberts, told CFJ that Gradus got involved in the project when Arcadia, got in touch and explained how it was giving its time and expertise to help on a build for those affected in the Grenfell community.

‘Without hesitation we helped Arcadia Flooring specify the optimum stair-edging and matting products and supplied them free,’ says Anthony. ‘The stairs in the community centre were fitted with our AS11 stair-edging and G11 in the reception area. We also supplied our super-strong adhesive, Gradus Grip, to install them soundly and without pips.’

To welcome visitors to the site, Gradus supplied 10sq m of its secondary matting, Boulevard 5000.

Another charitable donation came from Tremco. In a statement for CFJ, Tremco said: ‘The Grenfell Community Centre project was one of great interest to us. After being asked to contact Arcadia, Gary Knowles, our area sales manager, conducted site visits to undertake moisture readings, to check the substrate and to create an effective and suitable product specification.

‘The products specified by Tremco were ES600 moisture vapour suppressant and SX220 self-levelling compound. Both products were specified owing to the exceptional compressive strength and the fast-drying time required by the construction schedule.’

Tremco added: ‘It was also recommended that SF108 pressure-sensitive acrylic adhesive was used in conjunction with ES600 and SX220 owing to speed and coverage. The combination of products allowed for DPM and screed to be laid in just one night.’

According to Tremco, Gary from Arcadia was delighted with the quality of the finish, telling the company: ‘I was always going to use Tremco products; Gary Knowles just ensured we used the very best in terms of suitability for this challenge.’

To support the build, Stoke-on-Trent-based BAL donated adhesive, tanking, grout and sealants with tiles donated by Walls and Floors (Kettering).

After hearing of the call, BAL agreed to supply Single Part Flexible adhesive, BAL Tank-it waterproofing membrane, Micromax2 Grout Smoke and Micromax Sealant Smoke for changing rooms, toilets and a kitchen at the facility.

As well as providing materials, BAL also provided technical support to the tilers working on the project through Andy Oates, BAL product support technician for the southeast.

Alex Underwood, head of marketing at BAL said: ‘No one could have failed to have been moved by the terrible tragedy at Grenfell which claimed the lives of so many innocent people and devastated a community.

‘The Dale Youth Boxing Club was an important community facility which was in desperate need of a new home after the fire.

‘As the market-leader for full tiling solutions donating some adhesive and grout and the time of one of our support technicians was the least we could do for this fantastic project.’

Before completion of the project, Graham Gater, chairman of the Dale Youth Club said: ‘After the Grenfell Tower fire, the club was in boxing terms knocked down but thanks to BBC DIY SOS and all the people who are volunteering and donating we are now able to beat the count, through their generous and immensely inspirational support. We are really looking forward to getting a new space.’

The DIY SOS team added: ‘We’d like to thank the incredible generosity of the building companies, suppliers and volunteers who have helped on this huge project, without whom it would never have happened.’

BUT if Arcadia Flooring thought the community centre was as challenging as it got, they were in for a surprise. The materials for the boxing gym (which is housed in a separate extension of the main building) weren’t held in the UK, meaning Arcadia had to wait for them to come from Belgium and France. Once the flooring arrived, it had to be left down so it’s edges didn’t curl before installation, placing more time-pressure on Arcadia.

‘In addition to that, the volume of flooring changed slightly as we worked on it so we were concerned we wouldn’t have enough,’ says Gary. ‘at one point, we didn’t even know whether the flooring would arrive. I was even contemplating sending my dad to France to pick up the products.’

Was it really that urgent? I ask Gary. ‘I was even prepared to go myself,’ he says. Then, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he adds: ‘No, honestly. I wasn’t planning a cheeky weekend in Paris, that would have been for my old man.’

Gary quickly points out that the fault for the delay never lay with the manufacturers. ‘It’s out of their hands,’ he says. ‘They can’t exactly wave a magic wand to get the products into the UK. But, in the end, they got it here at 5am. I’d like to especially call out Suzanne Harvey at Gerflor who hurried the process along.’

Arcadia ended up installing three of Gerflor’s sports flooring products - Taraflex Comfort, Taraflex Performance and Taraflex Surface.
Gary says, ‘The designers already had an idea they wanted to use Gerflor as they’d supported previous DIY SOS projects and so it was just a case of Seda speaking to Gerflor to get the right specification for the areas.’

On delivery and performance, Seda says, ‘We couldn’t fault how efficient the delivery of materials was, considering the ridiculously short time-scale. In addition to this we were provided with the technical installation data we asked for and the materials were great to work with.

‘The finish was fantastic and the comments from various other trades on site were wonderful. This was a real logistical and physical challenge. Turning this project around in such a tight time-scale wouldn’t have been possible without the long hours of hard work put in by our fitters and the support of Suzanne Harvey, ensuring materials arrived on time.’

The largest area in the gym saw about 160sq m of Gerflor’s Taraflex Surface installed which provided the multipurpose single-layer floorcovering solution capable of withstanding storage units, the moving of gym equipment and heavy footfall.

‘If given the opportunity to influence the specification for similar works we’d definitely encourage clients to choose Gerflor because the products are great quality and look fantastic,’ says Seda. ‘We were honoured to be able to work on this project and we’re hugely grateful for the incredible donation of Gerflor for the sports flooring and Gradus for the stair-nosings and entrance matting.’

In total, the new facility took nine weeks to build and even had some royal help from Prince William, who took some time out of his busy schedule to help with some painting and meet volunteers and members of the community.

After the show was aired, Arcadia, received an email from Gordon at DIY SOS who said, ‘You were a joy to work with and helped to achieve the impossible in a crazy short timescale. The flooring all looked awesome and everyone involved from Arcadia was incredible: dedicated, committed and extremely hard working – all of which we’re hugely thankful for.’

THE charity provided by Arcadia Flooring at Grenfell isn’t the first time Gary Perry and his team have pitched in to help charitable causes. Last year, Seda raised money for the National Autistic Society by running in the London Marathon in which her extraordinary efforts were reported in CFJ.

‘I was injured and almost dropped out the week or so before but I had raised so much for my charity I didn’t want to let everybody down so I felt I at least had to give it a go,’ said Seda.

‘I somehow made it to the end of the hottest London marathon of all time! It was a tough day, the heat was unbearable at times, especially when the water stations were dry from Deptford to just before Limehouse (about six miles) which gave me no choice than to take it slow to avoid passing out.’

Seda’s injured ankle finally gave up just after mile 20 so it was a real struggle to finish. She stopped four times on the Embankment and the last 1,000m felt ‘like an eternity’. But she finished and in doing so raised a staggering amount of money for the National Autistic Society. ‘I just know they’ll help so many families with the money raised,’ she said.

The feelgood factor at Arcadia comes right from the top. Gary got into the industry when, looking for a job in construction, he was fortunate to get a flooring apprenticeship.

Since then, he notes that technology has advanced significantly, and will continue to do so, resulting in technical and manual jobs becoming digitised and robotic.

‘Looking back, it seems my decision to learn a skilled trade was a smart move and will likely keep me a job even with technology gradually taking over. I expect robot floorlayers are many years off yet!’

However, Gary is also quick to pay credit to the people that helped him get to where he is today.

‘It has always been my view that you are only as good as the people you work with, and I was very fortunate to have worked with some great mentors during my early years as both a trainee and sub-contractor.

‘It only takes one person to give you the confidence to take that first step to go it alone and build your own empire, and it was actually a person who remains a loyal client of Arcadia Flooring that gave me that first start.

‘My wife always reminds me it’s now my duty to pay it forward and I’ll always be happy to support and encourage my junior staff and the more seasoned old-timers who sometimes need that push or praise to keep them going - I’m referring to my dad here, still working for us at the ripe old age of 65.

All jokes aside, my dad has been an asset to the company and has a fantastic way with people. I often wonder if they’re disappointed when I turn up to do a survey.’

Somehow, that seems unlikely.

 

IMAGE COPYRIGHT: NATALIE OXFORD