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Barking blaze: Fire experts had warned balconies were ‘significant hazard’


Fire experts had warned that the wooden balconies on the Sheppard Robson-designed Barking Riverside block were a ‘significant hazard’ months before a major fire

An independent fire risk assessment took place in January on Samuel Garside House, the six-storey block which was badly damaged in a fire on 9 June.

According to the document, seen by the AJ, it could not be ascertained whether or not the wooden decks and joists had been treated with ‘fire-resistant materials’.

It said: ‘If a balcony does catch fire, it should be noted that this will accelerate fire spread through either setting the balcony above alight or through entering the flats through open windows and this will put residents and visitors at risk of smoke inhalation and burn injuries.’

The assessment recommended that the cladding was checked and for the building’s manager to warn people not to have barbeques on their balconies.

The report was commissioned by building manager RMG. However, despite the survey’s findings, the company’s chief, Hugh McGeever, was filmed telling residents at a meeting last week there had been ‘no factor’ identified as a risk with the balconies.

He insisted: ‘The type one assessment [from January] looked at the building and the components; it also looked at the fact that actually, the building was fully compliant with building regulations and there was no factor that was identified as a risk with the balconies.’

According to residents, RMG will now carry out a more thorough type four risk assessment on the block, which should include an inspection of areas of construction in the flats by use of a camera or borescope probe, by a third party.

As a six-storey block, Samuel Garside House is not covered by the government ban on combustible materials in external walls, including balconies, – which only applies to buildings taller than 18m.

Ian Gorst, regional chairman of the block’s developer, Bellway Homes, told residents at a meeting last week that the cladding was not ‘fire retardant’.

According to the Barking and Dagenham Times, Gorst said: ‘The building is not clad in timber. It is built out of brick and block but what you have is a steel balcony structure and across that you have a decorative feature which is a cedar cladding.’

He added: ‘There is no legal requirement to build out of non-combustible materials.’

The AJ understands that Bellway had not received the report before the fire but had been asked by RMG to provide information on the materials used on Samuel Garside house.

Last week Bellway said it was ‘highly likely’ they would strip the timber cladding from the rest of its homes across the Barking Riverside estate.

Bellway said it could not comment on the fire itself while the investigation was ongoing.

RMG has been approached for comment. 


Readers' comments (4)

  • Industry Professional

    I would have thought that, after Summerland (1973), untreated timber cladding on the balconies would be seen as risky.
    I am not an Architect but it does seem to me that there needs to be a drastic improvement in the understanding of the Building Regulations and also for them to be clearer, before we have another tragic disaster on the industry's hands.

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  • Quite apart from suspect building regulations, apparently inadequate construction documentation, and post-Grenfell government bumbling, how to ensure that the Hugh McGeevers of this world are weeded out if people are to be protected from being roasted alive?

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  • Robert Wakeham: Major housebuilders and other developers save on architects fees by employing them to do the bare minimum and leaving subcontractor, often without design responsibility, and their own design managers to maintain continuity. If the initial architect was impoverished enough by the process they will have put in their specs/prelims that their work is design intent only, is not a final solution for construction and it is the responsibility of others to ensure regulatory and other requirements are met. Because their work is not as highly skilled as a full design service they will have also used cheaper and less experienced staff. This fragmentation and de-skilling looses the thread of an overall strategy for matters such as fire, if it was established in the first place anyway. We have worked as subcontractors designer in a major development and found that the process missed out what used to be stage E where strategy was defined. The client had refused to pay for it. We inherited a mess and as conscientious professionals our analysis and influence had to be exerted way beyond the package we were detailing, with an enhanced appointment, to be able to do that. This doesn't always happen, and gaps in thinking occur. The "blame" in our instance lay between the major client, who wouldn't pay for stage E, and the contractor who wouldn't do likewise at the beginning of his work and was under financial imperative to start on site imediately. Not having an equivalent to the old RIBA stage E in the current scope of works does not help. This is a regular occurence, and Building Control bodies don't wade in to demand it.
    Strictly speaking timber is an unsuitable material externally where fire resistance is required, because there isn't an available treatment that can be guaranteed not to deteriorate with weathering. Most building control officers accept treatments. Only a few are sticklers and will not. Weexhaustively tried to find a product and could not.

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  • I've used stained 'timber lookalike' calcium silicate based wood-grained planking to match existing timber cladding on a building that had one gable at increased risk of fire from a neighbouring building - and although arguably architecturally dishonest, this has successfully maintained the character of the building.

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