Londoners in timber-frame blocks need to feel safer
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.