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New fears over timber-frame buildings after two fires

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Questions about the safety of timber-frame construction have resurfaced after two fires in Canterbury and Wigan

A blaze at City Wall Avenue in Canterbury on 3 July left five apartments destroyed, the front of the building collapsed and a further 25 homes severely affected.

The incident follows a fire at Wharfside apartments near Wigan Pier, which left more than 40 flats condemned.

Speaking after the Canterbury fire, chairman of the British Association of Reinforcement (BAR) said: ‘This fire questions the suitability of using timber frame construction for multi-storey buildings.

‘There is widespread acknowledgement of the fire risk of timber frames during the construction phase but this fire quickly spread in a completed building despite its fire mitigation measures.’

‘For multi-storey construction a better option would be reinforced concrete which provides inherent fire resistance for up to four hours without the need for additional finishes making it a safer option for construction and for living in.’

However, Andrew Carpenter, chief executive of the Structural Timber Association, which represents the industry, told AJ: ‘In these two cases, the buildings performed as they should have done in terms of protecting life.

‘Unfortunately, whenever there is a fire in a timber structure you get a reaction that is more vociferous than when it happens in any other structure.

‘If you strip out sheds and caravans from DCLG figures, you find that timber framed homes have a better safety record than conventional built ones.’

The Canterbury blaze is thought to have started in the utility room of a top-floor flat and was tackled by five fire fighters.

Paul Flaherty, assistant director at Kent Fire and Rescue Service said: ‘Crews have worked very hard to get this fire under control in very challenging conditions – dealing with a four storey building that was well alight. The building was timber framed construction and so the fire was able to spread very quickly among the frame voids. This meant it was a difficult fire to fight in the early stages.’

The fire in a completed and inhabited block of flats undermines the timber frame sector who whilst acknowledging the vulnerability of unfinished frame structures have said that completed timber buildings have a far reduced fire risk.

In Wigan, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service mobilised 100 fire officers, six fire engines, two aerial platforms and a number of other specialist vehicles after a fire broke out in the middle of the night.

A statement from the service said: ‘The nature of the wooden-framed building meant the flames quickly spread and people living in 120 flats in the block were evacuated.’

Architect Sam Webb, an expert in post-war building design, told AJ: ‘This is a major issue, likely to get worse unless something is done.

‘If nothing happens then I am very sorry to say but the only thing that will change politician’s minds is a fire disaster in a multi storey block of flats which kill people.’

Previous story (AJ 10.01.11)

Government rejects tougher timber frame fire rules

The department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) has rejected demands by the London Assembly to toughen up timber frame building rules

Assembly members in December published a report calling for measures aimed at reducing the risk of fire on timber frame buildings.

Responding to public outcry after a fire on a building in Camberwell, south London, killed six people, the report asked for more building control inspections and for social landlords to publish a fire risk register.

Despite the fire and subsequent report the government has decided to retain current regulations governing timber framed buildings. A spokesperson for the department confirmed its view that ‘further regulation is not an appropriate approach at this time’.

A statement explained: ‘Many of the concerns around timber-framed construction relate to risks during the construction phase and the Health and Safety Executive, who lead on construction safety, are now working closely with the industry to find technical solutions that address these risks.

‘The fire sector has already taken steps to develop and agree, across industry, criteria against which to assess the competency of those offering fire risk assessment services, and for this to form the basis of an accreditation or registration schemes on which “responsible persons” can rely.’

The UK Timber Frame Association was unavailable to comment.

 

Communities and Local Government statement

We thank the London Assembly for their report. While the London Assembly have been preparing their report, the Department has not been idle. We have been looking at these issues with the fire and rescue service, the industry and the Health and Safety Executive and we continue to look at what steps can be taken, within the sector, to improve standards and which would be more effective than simply regulating. On the basis of these discussions, we have concluded that further regulation is not an appropriate approach at this time.

Many of the concerns around timber-framed construction relate to risks during the construction phase and the Health and Safety Executive, who lead on construction safety, are now working closely with the industry to find technical solutions that address these risks.

We have recognised the need for guidance on managing fire safety in purpose built blocks of flats. We are therefore working with the Local Government Group and other sector partners to develop appropriate fire safety guidance for landlords across all housing sectors. We expect this to clarify a number of issues in relation to fire safety management and to ensure that the residents in these buildings get appropriate advice from their landlords on what to do in the event of a fire.

The fire sector has already taken steps to develop and agree, across industry, criteria against which to assess the competency of those offering fire risk assessment services, and for this to form the basis of an accreditation or registration schemes on which ‘responsible persons’ can rely.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Smoke logging and speed of spread would be my concerns. It is essential to build from inherently non combustible materials otherwise fire protection measures will gradually decline over time- cracks opening up etc.
    C.W. Slator. Construction Procurement Directorate, Dept. of Finance Northern Ireland.

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