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Londoners in timber-frame blocks need to feel safer

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Kurt Barling | 17:10 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Back in July I blogged about the risks associated with timber-frame buildings and fire. Based on the available evidence from official sources, I suggested that the safety of these buildings appeared to be open to question after a series of widely reported fires on timber-frame building construction sites.

The London Assembly is due to publish a report in September into the risks of fire in London's residential high rise accommodation. Hopefully this report will have taken on board the latest official statistics on fire risks published by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The Fire Statistics monitor looks at fires in buildings that are under construction and those that are lived in. The report's authors accept that it is not always possible to be sure all fires in inhabited timber-frame blocks are reported, because it may not be obvious what the building is constructed of if the damage is limited.

Most timber-frame blocks look like many other brick built buildings.

The statistical analysis is limited. There are too few fires in building types under construction, other than timber frame, to apply a statistical test.

However, the raw data published in the last few days paints a fresh picture. The ratio of fires in timber-frame buildings compared to fires in buildings of no special construction is much higher; one in eight compared with one in 59.

It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that's over seven times higher.

Let's not play around with statistics. These facts suggest there is clearly a higher risk of fire on a timber-frame construction site than on one where buildings are of no special construction.

Now making the leap to link these facts with the vulnerability of timber-frame blocks which are inhabited is not straightforward. But there is a growing body of evidence from around the country, which at least means the question must now be asked; how at risk are inhabited timber-frame blocks of catching fire and the fire spreading catastrophically?

We reported on a fire in Croydon in 2007 where a timber-frame block caught fire and the fire spread so rapidly through wall cavities that the entire building was lost.

The Fire Service report into the fire said its spread resulted from poor workmanship when the buildings had been refurbished. The building had also not had a valid Fire Risk Assessment carried out once it had been refurbished.

The Government's statistics suggest there is no difference in the casualty rate for people caught up in a timber-frame fire when compared with other construction types. That's certainly reassuring for residents in these types of blocks.

However, it does appear "that fires in timber-framed dwellings do tend to have a greater area of fire and heat damage than fires in dwellings of no special construction" (Fire Statistics Monitor, 20 August 2010). The differences cannot be ascribed to a chance variation, according to the official record.

It is no longer sufficient to hide behind the results of a flawed fire at Cardington in 1999. More and more residents in social housing in the capital are living in timber-framed blocks and they deserve to be reassured with facts, that they are not living in an accident waiting to happen.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Whilst it may be of concern in respect of housing under construction, completed units as you say have not so far indicated higher risk than traditionally built houses.
    To be more relevant in discussing the issue perhaps you should explore the experience of timber framed housing in Scandinavia and North America. These countries have considerable experience using this method of construction and there experiences would provide a far more balanced view than your report so far.

  • Comment number 2.

    May I respectfully say, that I think you have misread the statistics from the report.

    What the publication says is that 1 in 8 fires that occur during construction are in timber frame buildings, compared to 1 in 59 once complete.

    Not, as you implied, that 1 in 8 are timber frame, compared to 1 in 59 for other types of building..

    One must also remember that, NHBC housing stats for 2009 state that 1 in 5 (infact it is closer to 1 in 4) new build dwellings are timber frame.

    So... comparing statistics, it would appear that fires in on timber frame building sites occur LESS frequently than fire in non timber frame building sites.

    This really is a non news story!

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    A spot of O-level maths would be valuable here, both for Mr Barling and your respondent SSC. The Communities and Local Government Fire Statistics Monitor actually states that 50 out of the total of 400 fires on UK construction sites in 2009-2010 involved timber framed buildings. That is 12.5%.
    It then goes on to say that the total number of fires in existing/completed buildings was 47,600 and, of these, 802 were timber-framed. That's 1.7%.
    So the figures, in fact, indicate that fire is overall less likely in a completed timber-frame building than other types of building, but more likely on a timber-frame construction site. The latter has been acknowledged by the UK timber frame industry and it has, consequently, introduced a fire safety code of conduct called Site Safe, which is now being rolled out in the construction industry generally.
    Rather than the claims from supporters of rival building methods that timber frame construction is inherently unsafe, the evidence from the fires on building sites does support the timber frame sector's assertion that it is work practices and site management that primarily need addressing to cut the risk. Fires have started most frequently when the vulnerable frame is left exposed - and in some cases the contractors have left them in this state for months on end. Some blazes have been caused by site workers, but 'naked' timber frame have also proved to be a very tempting target for arsonists. So what is needed, as the UK Timber Frame Association says, is greater risk awareness among builders and contractors (hence its introduction of Site Safe) and a different approach to building schedules so that fire blocks and other fire preventing systems and materials are added sooner and the period the frame is left exposed kept to a minimum.
    Many feel it would be instructive for the construction industry as a whole to learn from the experience of counterparts abroad, notably in the Nordic countries and North America, where timber-based building is much more prevalent - and its general fire safety proven.
    In the meantime, it might be an idea for journalists to go on a crash statistics course and not accept the anti-timber frame propaganda from the masonry sector with, seemingly, zero scrutiny. As the environmental superiority of timber-based building has increasingly come into its own, the latter, fearing for their market share, have wound up their knocking copy to a hysterical pitch and the media, for the main part, seem to have swallowed it hook line and sinker.

    Mike Jeffree.
    Editor Timber Trades Journal


  • Comment number 5.

    Mike

    Thanks for the view on the numbers, but I will again have to respecfully disagree.

    It states (and I quote) that

    “In 2009/10 there were 50 fires in timber frame building under construction compared to exactly 400 in building under construction but whose structure was of no special interest.”

    So, there were 450 fires in total, 50 of which were on timber framed sites. As such that is just over 11% or 1 in 9.

    “Amongst buildings under construction, the ratio of fires in timber frame buildings compared to fires in buildings of no special construction is much higher at 1:8 (50 compared to 400) than the same ratio for buildings not under construction (1:59, 802 compared to 47,600 fires).”

    This paragraph compares complete and not completed buildings. So, 1 in 9 fires on site occur on timber frame sites. 1 in 60 fires in completed buildings occur in timber framed buildings.

    The only way of comparing likelihood (as Mike has done) is to know what proportion of sites are timber frame, and what proportion of completed buildings are timber frame.

    So if 1 in 9 sites are timber frame and 1 in 60 completed buildings are timber framed (not unreasonable numbers) these stats would show that there is NO difference between timber frame and other types of building in terms of occurrences of fire.

    Looking at NHBC housing stats as an indication, it shows that the above figures are likely, and as such, no additional risk of fire on timber frame sites, or completed buildings than other building types.

  • Comment number 6.

    I was rather surprised to read that timber-frame is the most popular construction method for NEW-build social housing.
    Is this one way that Londoners are trying to close the social cap (by putting the poor people into timber-boxes)?
    Apparently, the system now accounts for 60% of all NEWLY constructed social housing.
    Why?
    1. It’s cheaper & faster to build,
    - more environmentally-friendly than masonry, and
    - can now be used for blocks up to six or seven storeys high.
    (I want to add, and cannot resist adding: the residents are more expendible.)
    Last November, a fire destroyed a partially-built timber-frame housing development in Peckham, south London.
    A month later, another fire took a timber-frame block of flats in Salford.
    The UK Timber Frame Association (Yes, there is such an entity.) Managing Director Joe Martoccia said: "It's the first time we've been shown evidence like this. We will engage with the CLG over it. But it does involve a small number of fires; so we should be cautious not to read too much into it immediately."
    The CLG Department for Communities and Local Government is the
    Department with responsibity for (among other things):
    • building regulations
    • fire services and resilience
    • planning
    The Fire Minister, Bob Neill, said: "We take fire safety very seriously and are aware of the questions raised about timber-framed buildings. The new government is listening to the public's concerns carefully and will tackle them head-on."
    I think this may be doublespeak for everything is okay. Don't worry. Let's just carry on...

  • Comment number 7.

    I think it comes down to the original design of the building and then eventually the maintenance of it.

    If high risk activities would be carried out in a property then the construction has to be looked at accordingly.

    A fire risk assessment will then look at the maintenance side of it.

    For me the issue is awareness and people not taking hazards seriously. A building – timber frame or not, will not burn down if there was no fire in the first place. We really got to look at prevention than cure.

    More details on fire risk assessment: https://www.faciltiiesconsulatncy.co.uk/fire-risk-assessment
    Fire risk Assessor – https://www.facilitiesconsultancy.co.uk/fire-regulations

 

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