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Mac fire: Fire service gives its verdict

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The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has blamed ventilation ducts, timber-lined walls and voids for the erratic and rapid spread of the fire which gutted the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA)

The detailed report released today says the ‘construction, layout, and high fire loading’ of the iconic library within Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1909 landmark meant the room, and its contents, ‘became totally involved in the fire’ in May.

The fire service also confirmed that the blaze had started, as earlier reported, in Studio 19 within the north basement of the Art Nouveau masterpiece.

Investigations showed that propellant gases from a canister of expanding foam being used by a student were sucked into a nearby home cinema-style projector where they ignited, setting its plastic casing alight.

The flames spread to foam boards directly behing it, before moving upwards through voids in the walls into Studio 31 on the ground floor. The fire travelled laterally across to the neighbouring store room at ceiling level and then along the building westerly, through walls spaces to the Mackintosh Library on the floor above.

Although firefighters managed to save 90 per cent of the building, the library was almost entirely destroyed.

Last week forensic archaeologists began the ‘painstaking work’ of sifting through the debris, cataloguing their finds to provide ‘invaluable information to the restoration and archives teams’.

Fourteen firms from across the globe have already thrown their hats into the ring to take on the £35million project to restore the famous Glasgow building (see AJ 12.11.14).

Detailed report

Where the fire began

The fire started in Studio 19 in the north basement, west wing of the Mackintosh Building within a student exhibition space - approximately 6m x 2.5m, constructed of chipboard and wooden studs.

The student work comprised high expansion foam panels (fabricated outside the exhibition space), and were approximately 50-75mm in depth, fastened to three of the walls, with one wall left blank to receive projected images from a projector mounted on the opposite wall.

At the time of the incident visible gaps between the foam panels were being filled-in by applying foam directly from a canister of expanding foam.  

Basement plan - with fire

Cause

The fire originated within a projector mounted on a shelf approximately 1.7m from the ground and located on the south wall of the studio. (Projector details - Epson EMP-TW680; this was the property of GSA and had been purchased in 2008; it was maintained by GSA Technical Services Department; it had been subject to inspection, cleaned and tested prior to being loaned, with guidance, to the student; annual portable appliance testing (PAT) had last been carried out in December 2013).

Fire was caused when flammable gases (Isobutane, propane and dimethyl ether) used as a propellant within a canister of expanding foam was discharged in close proximity to the projector.

These flammable gases were drawn into the projector cooling fan. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service report has ruled out ignition being caused by this equipment being defective, finding no evidence to suggest the proejctor had not operated as the manufacturers intended. It is likely that indirect ignition of the flammable gases occurred as it passed in and around energised electrical components of the projector.

Once ignited the flame front would have grown in size consuming plastic components and the plastic casing of the projector, flames then impinged onto the foam which was placed on the wall directly behind it.  

Fire spread

As flames and hot gases reached ceiling level of Studio 19 they spread horizontally, igniting further timber panelling and entered voids in the walls on both sides of the doorway of Studio 19.  

Ground floor plan - with fire

Flames then travelled through the voids in the walls into Studio 31 on the ground floor, directly above Studio 19. Fire spread vertically either side of the doorway and also horizontally behind the timber panelling, in a westerly direction, in Studio 31. At least four voids run vertically in the walls of Studio 31 and these allowed unchecked fire spread to areas above, as well as on the same level.

First floor plan - with fire

One of these voids allowed lateral access to Studio 32 at ceiling level. From Studio 32 the fire spread through voids to the Mackintosh Library above.  The construction, layout, and high fire loading (timber furniture, panelling and books) meant that the room and its contents became totally involved in the fire. From the Library the fire spread vertically via voids to the Library Storage Space above and then into Studio 58 via these same voids.

Second floor plan - with fire

Returning to the ground floor within Studio 31, fire spread via all four vertical voids to the first floor Studios above 43, 44 and 45. The fire achieved this by breaking through timber panelling which cover the voids, allowing access into the corridor outside the studios.

Fire then spread laterally from the Professors’ Studios to Studio 57.  From here, the fire also spread into Studio 58.
A major contributory factor for the fire spreading throughout the building was the number of timber lined walls and voids, and original ventilation ducts running both vertically and horizontally throughout the building. The vertical ventilation ducts consisted of both brick-lined - within the walls - and timber ducts - mounted on the wall surface. The brick-lined ducts were formed within the structure of the walls. Horizontal ducts were constructed of timber and, in some instances, sheet metal. A vertical service void ran the entire height of the building to roof level and acted like a chimney. It allowed flames, hot gases and smoke to travel vertically.

A fire suppression system, designed to enhance existing fire protection measures, was being installed and was in the latter stages of completion; at the time of the fire the system it was not fully commissioned and was not operational.  

Previous story (AJ 12.11.14)

Mac restoration job drums up global interest

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