Jess McCabe

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A story of two timber frame fires (Inside Housing)

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The fire ripped through the apartment block just inside Canterbury’s Roman city walls. It started at about 2pm on 4 July as a small blaze in an airing cupboard, likely from a boiler. But it quickly consumed five homes, damaging about 30.

“It came down like a cardboard box,” recalls a tenant who videoed the blaze from their home across the street, saying most of the damage took only an hour. The fire spread quickly through the homes, built using timber frames. Neighbours recall seeing brown lines where the floors and walls seemed to be catching alight within the Town & Country Housing Group building.

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Journalist Alex Claridge lives in the complex, and he told local papers at the time: “It is literally destroying everything in its path, with tiles and huge pieces of masonry crashing to the ground.”

Luckily, no one died in the fire, which needed 10 fire engines to get it under control. But it was only one of two serious fires this summer which devastated blocks of flats made with timber frames.

The timber frame industry has long accepted that there are added risks from arson and accidents on building sites, and this has led to tightening of safety restrictions on site. But these fires occurred on completed buildings, where residents were living. Perhaps inevitably, questions have been raised. Did the extent of the damage have anything to do with the fact the buildings are timber-framed – or was it more to do with wider design and implementation issues?

The answers to these questions have taken on added importance. In the decade since the Canterbury flats were built, timber frame has only become more popular.

In 2014, timber frame was used in 24.6% of new home starts in the UK according to the Structural Timber Association, which says this is a record. About 30% of new social homes were made using timber frames in England – and 91% in Scotland.

Barratt Homes is building 1,300 timber frame homes this financial year, and Persimmon Homes is stepping up production of timber frame ‘kits’ from about 5,000 to 8,000 a year. Social landlords are getting in on the action too – the Accord Group, having set up its own timber frame factory, is about to franchise the business model to a council and another housing association.

Placing blame

At the time of the Canterbury fire, the fire service was unequivocal that the timber construction played a role. Paul Flaherty, assistant director at Kent Fire and Rescue Service, told Kent Online on the evening of the fire: “The building is a timber-framed construction and so the fire was able to spread very quickly among the frame voids.”

Shortly after the fire, local MP Julian Brazier wrote a scalding letter to the National House Building Council (NHBC) – which regulates the safety of new homes – stating that the design appeared to be at fault and “the speed at which this devastating conflagration spread suggests that there is a serious gap in modern building regulations”.

Under fire ‘compartmentalisation’ regulations, flats should be designed so that if a fire does break out, it doesn’t spread to other flats for at least an hour. Indeed, if onlookers’ recollections of the fire are correct, the blaze appeared to do most of its damage in that time period. Firefighters were working on the block well into the next morning, to identify and put out ‘hot spots’ in the collapsed part of the building.

Visiting the site nearly five months later, the extent of the damage can still be seen. A hole has been gouged in the block 40 paces long, and the ragged edges of walls and the timber roof beams are still exposed.

Pinning down whether fears raised in the aftermath of the Canerbury fire were justified is difficult. Neither the original developer, Bellway, nor the landlord, Town & Country, would answer Inside Housing’s questions.

For use in Inside Housing, 20 November 2015

Source: Rex Features

Great fire of London influenced how we see timber frame

A spokesperson from Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) says: “The findings of KFRS’ fire investigation into the cause of the fire at Creine Mill Lane, Canterbury, were inconclusive. The cause of the fire is now being investigated independently.”

Bellway simply supplied a statement reassuring that: “Timber frame construction meets all the stringent building regulation requirements in the UK, as well as health and safety regulations, as monitored by the HSE [Health and Safety Executive], NHBC and other regulatory authorities.”

Town & Country also declined to respond to Inside Housing’s questions, other than to issue a statement, saying: “A number of properties were significantly affected by the fire. Investigations as to the cause of the fire are ongoing and we continue to work with our insurers and lawyers in this regard. Any of the properties which are to be rebuilt will be done so as to continue to protect the safety of our tenants.”

Local press reports and tenants say they have been told that the damaged homes are due to be replaced along the lines of the original design. Neighbours from the adjacent blocks within the 416-home development told Inside Housing that no work has been done to adjust the fire breaks or improve safety in similar homes, although the design is similar.

But for now, we simply couldn’t establish if the fears about the construction of this block were justified, and whether any problems can be traced to the materials used, the design, or the construction.

For use in Inside Housing, 20 November 2015

During the blaze in Wigan

Much more information is available to scrutinise the other fire, which devastated a Symphony Housing-managed housing block last summer, and it seems to dampen any fears about timber frames.

Starting in the early hours of Sunday morning on 14 June, this fire had the potential to be lethal. At 4am when it started, the residents – mostly private renters – were either in bed asleep, or coming home from a night out. The spark was set on the wooden-decked balcony of a top-floor flat in Wharfside, one of a collection of timber-framed blocks of flats set around Wigan’s famous pier.

“The building actually performed as it should do.”

Stephen Gallaghan, commercial management director, CPS

But the fire got into the cladding, and then into the wooden frame of the building. It took fire fighters days to completely extinguish the fire and use thermal imaging cameras to make sure no embers remained, to restart the flames. Forty-four flats are still undergoing works, either having to be refurbished or completely rebuilt, due to finish in spring next year. Only five or six of flats on one section of the top floor were touched by flames – the rest of the damage was from the water pumped up from the canal by the firefighters to extinguish the blaze. An entire section of the roof also had to be removed, so the fire service could get to the top floor where the fire was burning.

The damage was to belongings, not human life. Luckily no one was hurt or killed in the fire. But it was still devastating to the tenants, many of whom did not have contents insurance. One resident wrote to Symphony to thank them after she managed to salvage some of her belongings. “All the things I kept thinking about and crying [about] when I thought about them – my teddies from when I was born, my mum’s clothes, my memory box from high school and my jewellery,” she wrote in an email seen by Inside Housing.

“It was only actually the top floor apartments that were damaged by fire, and the fire never spread,” says Stephen Gallaghan, commercial management director at CPS, the private sector management arm of Symphony Housing, which is the managing agent of the block. His conclusions are based on conversations with the fire service, although the final report into the fire isn’t yet available. “The building actually performed as it should do in terms of compartmentalisation.”

Facts and figures

These two fires show that untangling the facts on timber’s fire safety can be difficult. When it comes to the sector at large, telling fact from lobbying is also not always easy. Research and fact sheets about the safety of timber frames are easily found, but much of this material appears on websites backed by the timber industry.

However, anti-timber arguments can also often be traced to those with a vested interest in masonry, bricks and mortar. Andrew Carpenter, chief executive of the Structural Timber Association, says: “Other products will deliberately attack the use of timber frames.”

We do have some hard facts, however. Five years ago, in the aftermath of another spate of timber frame fires, the UK government decided to focus its statistical might on this subject. This produced detailed information on the nearly 2,500 fires in English timber frame buildings from 2009 to 2012.

For use in Inside Housing, 20 November 2015

Aftermath of the fire in Wigan

The government concluded that there were no more fires in timber-built homes – but those fires which did occur were more intense, and caused more damage.

Nearly one in four of the fires in completed homes caused damage to more than 100m2 of the building, a measure of severity. This compares to only 4% in traditionally-built homes, made of masonry. However, there were no more fatalities from timber frame fires than traditionally built homes.

Paul Redington, senior claim adjuster at the major loss team at the insurance firm Zurich, is reassuring, pointing out that the UK building regulations include “strict requirements around fire prevention”. He says: “Generally timber remains a safe material to use for building frames provided best practices and guidelines are properly adhered to.”

Birgit Östman is a Swedish researcher who led a European technical investigation into timber frame fire safety. She says: “We can build a very fire-resistant timber house, but there are some challenges, and one of the most demanding challenges is to have proper detailing. That means we don’t have any voids or open spaces within the construction where the fire can jump from one apartment or fire cell to another.

“This is important in all types of buildings – in timber buildings there can be more severe consequences if you get fire in such voids.

“But it’s also important that these details are not only in the drawings, but are included in the building, and it needs inspections and control.”

“We can build a very fire-resistant timber house, but there are some challenges.”

Birgit Östman, Swedish researcher

Time for a review?

On the other hand, many of the strongest critics of timber frame come from the fire services. A few years ago, London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority chair Brian Coleman said: “I personally wouldn’t allow any high-rise timber buildings – there needs to be a review of regulations.” And the Greater London Authority in 2010 also issued a report calling for tighter regulations on timber framing.

The progress of this summer’s two fires will no doubt provide lessons as the investigations progress. But until and unless the results of these detailed investigations are made public, it is not clear if changes to future buildings should be implemented.

For now, in Canterbury, at least one of the tenants affected plans to stay put. “It was quite traumatic. It was quite close to home,” she says, not wanting to be named out of sensitivity to neighbours who have been much worse affected.

She considered a move but the alternative home she was offered by Town & Country was too far from her child’s school. “You just try not to think about it.”

Why England builds less timber homes than everyone else

The current build-up of timber housing goes against the grain in England. Fear of timber fire seems to be lodged deep in the national psyche: Andrew Carpenter from the Structural Timber Association argues this may be causing English people to view individual bad fires in a timber frame building as a damning indictment of the material, ignoring fires that take place in more traditionally built homes.

The explanation for why England builds homes mostly from bricks and mortar, while the rest of the world favours timber, date back to the Great Fire of London of 1666, which burned down thousands of homes and literally reshaped the capital city.

This event has reinforced down the centuries not only our fears of fire, but also our legal system: after the fire, parliament legislated and houses in London could only be built from stone or brick, and streets had to be wide enough to act as a fire break.

Thus England, where timber frame made up 18.5% of housing starts last year, was set apart. Even in Scotland, 76.5% of new homes use wood frames.

The structure of a timber frame house in Finland or Philadelphia might be just as vulnerable should it catch alight; but if it happened in Felixstowe, it might be more likely to provoke a wider debate about the safety of the material.

Still, England’s lack of familiarity with timber frame may also be causing special problems. In a recent risk guidance note, Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Underwriting points out that in the US, where timber frame is the standard, regulations often require sprinklers to be installed in homes built using this material.

“In the UK, we seem to have plunged headlong into this form of construction without heeding the experience of other countries with a significant loss history associated with this form of construction,” the insurer points out.

This story was published in the 20 November issue of Inside Housing 

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