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Uni fire rekindles debate on timber-framed buildings

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Concerns about safety standards for timber-framed buildings have been renewed following a blaze that destroyed a £20m science block by Fairhursts Design Group that was under construction at Nottingham University.

The fire at the university’s Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry required 60 firefighters to tackle and is the latest in a series of high-profile catastrophes involving timber-framed structures.

Former chief fire officer Ronnie King, who is honorary secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue, said the blaze was the embodiment of many of the key safety issues related to timber-frame construction.

King said timber-framed buildings were at their most vulnerable while under construction because structures were exposed, air could circulate, while designed-in safety features such as fire-resistant doors were unlikely to be place.

He said a 2010 call from the Chief Fire Officers Association for a review of building regulations to address such issues, and wider concerns about fire-spread from construction sites had not been acted upon.

‘There is an acceptance that far too many timber-framed buildings have caught fire during the construction phase,’ he said.

‘It isn’t just a lack of sprinklers – many problems stem from the way that sites are managed and secured, how ‘hot work’ is managed, and how they make sure that nothing is left about that can be lit by arsonists.’

Fairhursts Design Group's Nottingham University laboratory

Fairhursts Design Group’s Nottingham University laboratory

King, who represented families of the victims of at the inquest into 2009’s Lakanal House tower-block fire, said there was a distinct lack of urgency on the part of ministers to deal with problems associated with timber-framed structures.

He said ministers had largely ignored a 2010 call from the Chief Fire Officers Assocation

“They’ve got this ‘Red Tape Challenge’ and they don’t want to add any more burdens to business,” he said.

Mike Leonard, chief executive of the Modern Masonry Alliance, said the construction industry was well aware of the problems related to timber-framed buildings and that there was a growing acceptance that other materials could be just as energy-efficient.

“The industry and fire experts understand, but at government level there’s little appetite to regulate, because their policy is to reduce regulation,” he said.

Leonard said he believed that obtaining full insurance cover for under-construction timber-framed projects was increasingly costly because of the additional risks.

Lawrence Young, chairman of the Structural Timber Association (STA), said official statistics showed that only a small proportion of building fires involved structural timber.

“The STA is at the very heart of work to underpin the safety of buildings during construction and is proactively working and engaging with a range of stakeholders to further improve the performance of structural timber based buildings,” he said.

“Activities include technical research, guidance preparation, information dissemination and training course preparation and delivery.” 

Fairhursts Design Group's Nottingham University laboratory

Fairhursts Design Group’s Nottingham University laboratory

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokeswoman said building regulations were only concerned with finished structures, not construction sites.

However she said the Health and Safety Executive had produced fire-safety guidance that specifically referred to timber-framed structures in 2010.

Nottingham University said it remained committed to providing the new facilities that were to have been included in the Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry - funded with £12m from pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline.

But a spokeswoman added that decisions on the form those facilities would take were expected to be made in the coming weeks.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A plan for prevention of fires in construction sites must be on place side by side with design documentation and ready to be approved or rejected by planning officers whose specialism should include Fire Prevention specialists and Fire Brigade Officers.
    Eleni Tracada
    Senior Lecturer

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