It’s official: if a timber-frame building catches fire, it will suffer more damage than if it were built using other forms of construction

This has long been suspected, but the evidence for it was always anecdotal; now the communities department’s annual fire statistics have nailed it once and for all.

The department publishes a Fire Statistics Monitor every year, but the latest edition, which covers all the fires in England between April 2009 and March 2010, has a section dedicated to fires in timber-frame buildings. It shows that if there is a fire in a half-built or completed timber-framed building, a bigger area will be damaged. For example, 47% of completed timber-framed dwellings that catch fire will suffer damage to an area greater than 50m2 compared with 32% for other forms of construction - although injury and death rates are the same for all.

These figures should be the trigger for action. But there are other pressures bearing down on the industry. For a start there are signs that this issue is being picked up by the national media. It only took one World in Action TV documentary to stop the timber frame industry in its tracks in the eighties. This time it may be a Panorama that does the damage. Further pressure is coming from insurers, which are increasingly concerned about disproportionate losses from fires in timber-frame buildings. And yet more ammunition is likely to be provided by the Greater London Authority report on fires in tall buildings and half-built timber frame developments. This is due out soon and given how fire experts and fire brigades feel about timber frame, it is likely to contain tough words.

There are signs this issue is being picked up by the national media. It only took one television programme to stop the timber frame industry in its tracks in the eighties

We’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again. Building supports modern methods of construction and timber frame. The advantages of speed, quality and sustainability can’t be ignored. Condemning a whole construction method would be an overreaction, and may even result in hundreds of timber frame buildings being abandoned or demolished. But the industry needs to do something. It needs to crack on with research into what extent flammable insulation materials such as polystyrene contribute to fire spreading inside hard-to-reach cavities. And it must find a way of stopping builders from leaving gaps between cavity barriers and the wall, making them useless in stopping fire spread. Once identified, high-risk materials and practices should be weeded out.

Firefighters need to find more effective ways of tackling timber frame fires. Databases of timber frame buildings would help brigades respond more quickly to specific risks and perhaps new fire fighting measures should be explored such as using inert gases to put out fires in cavities. Changes by building occupiers such as knocking a hole in the wall to fit a flat screen television can also compromise fire performance; perhaps they should be given guidance on how to modify their homes.

The timber frame industry is trying to tackle the issue of fires on construction sites by using third-party accreditation to make sure contractors are installing fire-stopping measures properly. But policing your own customers is difficult and the industry could use some help. Now the communities department can no longer deny there is a problem, research into fire spread inside cavities should inform the Building Regulations. And a tougher inspection regime is needed to ensure buildings comply with them. Detailed drawings showing fire-stopping measures and how they will be installed should be submitted and checked by building control. And they could take a leaf out of the Passivhaus certification book by insisting on photographic evidence that the work has been done. This might seem onerous but remember, it only took one crash to kill Concorde.

Thomas Lane, assistant editor