Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Concerns raised over use of flammable insulation in Page\Park’s Mac restoration

Mac fire june 2018 peter drummond web
  • 10 Comments

Fire safety experts have said it is ’preposterous’ that flammable insulation panels were installed during Page\Park’s £51 million restoration of the Glasgow School of Art, rather than materials that do not burn

The investigation is still ongoing into what caused the fire which ripped through the landmark building in June, part-way through its refurbishment following the previous blaze in 2014.

However, the Page\Park project is now under scrutiny following revelations that it used PIR insulation (polyisocyanurate), panels made of plastic foam held between two sheets of aluminium foil, in the roof of the Mackintosh building.

In a detailed description of Page\Park’s project, published in the Riba Journal in March, the practice’s head of conservation Iain King describes how the product was installed in the space above Japanese-inspired gallery Studio 58, lost in the 2014 fire.

‘100mm of PIR insulation was installed behind the original Douglas fir soffit line. This detail maintains the exact interior proportions but has pushed the exterior apex line of the roof up,’ it reads.

A planning application for the restoration works, submitted to Glasgow City Council by Page\Park in 2016, also show that 165mm PIR was specified in the roof of Studio 51.

While PIR insulation is compliant with building regulations, experts have questioned why it was chosen over non-flammable products in such a high-risk building such as the Mac.

Independent fire safety expert Geoff Wilkinson said: ‘If you are looking only at energy efficiency within a fixed dimension, then PIR is a logical selection.

‘However, when you are refurbishing a fire-damaged listed building, especially such a high-profile one as the Mac, you would expect an increased awareness of the need to prevent fire spread.

‘Therefore, while it is likely that the use of PIR would have complied, it’s disappointing that more traditional non-combustible alternatives were not proposed, even if they would have resulted in a slightly worse thermal performance.’

Fire expert Stephen Mackenzie, director of Mackenzie Risk Management, echoed Wilkinson’s concerns, pointing out that Mackintosh’s original building was a ‘fire safety nightmare’ and comprised of loaded timber, combustible materials and finishes and hidden voids.

’Any restoration works should have sought ways to reduce fire hazards and fire risk. Hence it is preposterous to have insulated any aspect of the building with combustible PIR.’

The 2014 fire was caused when propellant gases from a canister of expanding foam being used by a student in the north basement of the building were sucked into a home cinema-style projector

Mackenzie questioned whether lessons had been learned, adding: ’Did the Mac’s design and construction team not heed the 2014 fire, which was contributed to by the use of similar expanding foam used as part of a student’ studio installation?’

He also raised concerns over the toxic gases that PIR insulation releases once ignited, which he said were a ‘known life safety risk’.

A spokesperson for The Glasgow School of Art said: ‘The GSA’s restoration plans went through Glasgow City Council’s thorough planning and historic building permission process, and were authorised through the issue of a Building Warrant.

‘The Mackintosh Building was being restored using a combination of historic materials and craftsmanship.

‘Any contemporary materials used in the restoration not only complied fully with the appropriate British and European Standard Institution specifications, but were also aligned with guidelines from specialist agencies such as Historic Environment Scotland and Historic England.’

Page\Park has been approached for comment.

  • 10 Comments

Readers' comments (10)

  • Let's just stop using combustible materials in buildings, PIR or any other.

    Lives and precious buildings are at risk.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • David Berridge is surely right, and the need to find effective substitutes is as critical to human safety as the past moves to phase out ozone-depleting substances and stop using asbestos.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • There are Building Regulation consultations ongoing in Scotland just now. I am, with colleagues, pushing for the banning of such toxic, unbreathable incendiaries and suggest others do too - though please note we don’t want to ban all “flammable”, which would include virtuous timber.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • MacKenzie Architects

    The entire UK is built using EPS, PIR and PUR, so be careful what you wish for.
    There are of course alternative forms of insulation, but they tend to be much poorer in performance and therefore much thicker in use.
    Perhaps better-performing fire-lining, better detailing to avoid chimney-effect voids, more extensive use of sprinkler systems in escape routes and better fire-retardants in plastics-based products would solve the fire-risk issues more effectively.

    A knee-jerk banning of 'combustible' to a greater or lesser degree materials from UK construction industry would have very wide-ranging consequences, and I suspect would lead to cost-saving pressure elsewhere, with other risks to occupants.

    I am deeply suspicious of holier-than-thou bandwagon jumpers who I doubt ever gave much more than a moment's thought about health-risks risks of materials or guidelines.
    The blind following of air-tight buildings philosophies is a perfect example. Air tight buildings are bad for your health.

    If nothing combustible is to be allowed, Mackintosh's Art School Library would have to be made out of fibre-cement,

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Malcolm Fraser and MacKenzie Architects' words of caution are clearly sensible, and the current situation should be creating strong incentives to the development of high performance alternatives to dangerously combustible insulation materials - and for the treatment of materials like timber that we can't afford to lose.
    But can this be left predominantly to industry, or is there the need to encourage more independent research?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • @Malcolm Fraser.
    Thank you for making the distinction between "toxic, unbreathable incendiaries" and timber, without the latter the Glasgow School of Art would lose its magic.
    @Mackenzie Architects.
    I have thought about this matter, and furthermore have only used those insulants under a concrete screed or slab.
    There are alternatives, and they do not cost much more.
    Can we rely on PIR manufacturers to come up with correct thermal insulation values? I doubt it. Then the case for their products fails.
    They have massive lobbying power, and before Grenfell had a rep on the Building Regulation Advisory Committee.
    Your comment indicates you are prepared to see more and larger fires all for simpler detailing for you.
    Not exactly a professional point of view.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Now other concerns are boiling over - 33 households in the Garnethill /Sauchiehall Street area and 55 businesses employing 350 people are all within the safety cordon, and Glasgow City Council Building Control is enforcing a ban on access due to the ongoing structural stabilisation work on the ruins.
    Residents are even being denied short visits to retrieve passports, car keys, medicines and children's toys, and businesses are facing bankruptcy.
    10 weeks and counting - how in heaven can it be taking this long to stabilise the ruins?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Chris Roche

    Important and fundamental questions need to be investigated urgently:
    * Why are flammable products still being specified post Grenfell.
    * Are we facing a construction crisis of the enormity of the previous Asbestos Crisis, due to the widespread use of flammable insulation products over the last 30 years?
    * Is there an associated future building insurance risk?
    * What is the role of NBS in encouraging the use of flammable insulation products?
    * Is there a risk of NBS liability?
    * What is the RIBA position?
    * Did RIBA Council recently vote on a decision to abandon their "Post-Grenfell Fire Safety Committee" and if so, who, and what, was driving this controversial decision?
    * Are Building Regulations Fit for Purpose?
    * Should these issues be debated in an open and transparent way with maximum inclusion of interested parties?
    * Should the Government be doing more, and more urgently?
    * What will be the impact on Architects Professional Indemnity Insurance?
    * Under the Human Rights Act do Architects have a Duty of Care to protect Human Life which goes beyond their responsibility to simply comply with Building Regulations - which are widely known to be deficient?
    * When and where do we start the debate on all of the above?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • @Chris Roche

    * Why are flammable products still being specified post Grenfell.
    // Perhaps because they are legal. Even the RIBA thinks combustible cladding is OK up to 18 M high.
    * Are we facing a construction crisis of the enormity of the previous Asbestos Crisis, due to the widespread use of flammable insulation products over the last 30 years?
    // I guess so, but the government, Hackitt and the RIBA are trying hard to cover it up.
    * Is there an associated future building insurance risk?
    //Surely
    * What is the role of NBS in encouraging the use of flammable insulation products?
    //Probably not
    * Is there a risk of NBS liability?
    //No
    * What is the RIBA position?
    //Combustible cladding up to 18 M. Presumably combustible materials inside the construction OK everywhere.
    //Architects to be tested for Health & Safety, but it was penny pinching client and unscrupulous/ignorant cladding contractors who caused Grenfell.
    * Did RIBA Council recently vote on a decision to abandon their "Post-Grenfell Fire Safety Committee" and if so, who, and what, was driving this controversial decision?
    * Are Building Regulations Fit for Purpose?
    // Regs and enforcement not up to Grenfell situations. Section 20 of the London Building Acts was ditched a couple of years ago.
    The Building Regulations Advisory Committee had a rep from St Gobain, but only one rep from the Fire Service, a Deputy Fire Chief from Dorset, and with all respect to any Fire Fighters, someone from a large city is necessary.
    * Should these issues be debated in an open and transparent way with maximum inclusion of interested parties?
    //Yes, but without lobbying or representation from the insulation and other manufacturers, including Hackitt.
    * Should the Government be doing more, and more urgently?
    //Of course.
    * What will be the impact on Architects Professional Indemnity Insurance?
    //There will be a question of the PII form soon.
    * Under the Human Rights Act do Architects have a Duty of Care to protect Human Life which goes beyond their responsibility to simply comply with Building Regulations - which are widely known to be deficient?
    // Try telling Kensington and Chelsea housing.
    * When and where do we start the debate on all of the above?
    //It has started, and subject to the inquiry, which is a long way down the line, will soon be closed off.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • @McKenzie Architects
    As your and my comment, along with the comment from Malcolm Fraser were published in the print AJ, I make a further response.

    I AM careful what I wish for, and that is no further deaths from "toxic, unbreathable incendiary" materials. (NB this excludes wood).

    I suspect, that like VW, manufacturers of EPS, PIR and PUR have been manipulating their insulation test values advantageously. Even so, there is no problem using thicker better (eg Rockwool) insulants, as the architects at Grenfell originally proposed.

    Detailing at Grenfell to avoid chimney effects and fire re-entry was scrapped by the cladding installers, and fire stopping was inadequately carried out using spray foam.

    Better fire linings and fire retardants may become available, but why not just use safer materials?

    Although sprinklers at Grenfell, which had only one stair, might have been useful, they are a costly diversion from using safer materials, and need to be maintained, and indeed turned on. My practice once installed sprinklers in a large factory. Years later the system was somehow rendered inoperative, and the most enormous fire ensued. Fortunately the building was empty at the time. (I note that the fireman's lift and the dry riser were unsatisfactory at Grenfell.)

    Finally, I am deeply suspicious of those who argue in favour of these "toxic, unbreathable incendiaries" (thanks again Malcolm Fraser for that lovely phrase). They do not take their responsibilities seriously. See for example the comment above by Chris Roche referring to the architect's duties under the Human Rights Act.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs

AJ Jobs