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More fire fears rage on the point of prefab

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I was interested to read of the Association of British Insurers' (ABI) concern about the higher fire risk in the 'new wave' of lightweight prefabricated buildings (AJ 27.5.04).

We were alerted earlier this year to important research work being concluded at the University of Vienna, looking at the fire risks and performance of concrete and timber-frame buildings over two storeys in height. The work also examined fire mortality rates internationally, although the UK was not included in the database.

In summary, the report shows that there are significantly higher risks of fire in timber-frame buildings, that the extent and cost of damage when there is a fire is much higher and the risk of death is higher. The latter risk is doubled when timber-frame reaches the 80 per cent market-share level for modular low-rise housing falsely stated by James Pickard as being the average for the Western world outside the UK (nearer 8 per cent). The final report has now been translated into English and can be obtained from British Precast. In summary, the ABI's concerns appear to be borne out by the research findings.

I should point out that the UK position was not examined by the researchers in their four-year study.Accordingly, we have asked the university to conduct a supplementary investigation when their work programme allows.

Puzzlingly, fire was not discussed in the recent Sustainable Buildings Task Group (SBTG) report, which got stuck in the carbon groove. Like all aspects of health and safety, such as timber preservatives in the case of timber-frame, it is a dimension to the sustainability debate that must be factored into any proper life-cycle model or design tool, yet normally is not.

We will be making that point strongly in our follow-up to the SBTG document.

Martin Clarke, chief executive, British Precast

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