Nothing focuses the mind quite like a dramatic picture.
And when in July last year St George’s timber-frame development in Colindale, north London, was razed to the ground in just nine minutes, that was precisely what the UK Timber Frame Association (UKTFA) was faced with.
When the smoke cleared, there were two questions facing the timber-frame industry. Could housebuilders and specifiers be persuaded to opt for multi-storey timber-frame houses? And could house buyers be persuaded to live in them?
Then things got even worse: a site fire started in Newcastle upon Tyne and two broke out in Hertfordshire. In April of this year the industry worked out a strategy to counter the perception that a timber-frame site was just so much kindling waiting for a cigarette to sail over the hoardings. Stewart Dalgarno, the UKTFA’s new chief executive, pledged to spend £150,000 on researching ways to cut the cost of fire-retardants and design tactics to reduce the frightening speed with which the fires had spread. Those were welcome moves, but the news this week that developers will be able to commission site safety inspections from an HSE-approved inspector is real progress.
Now the UKTFA should go further. At the time of the Colindale blaze several experts said the whole of a timber-frame construction programme should be designed to minimise the risk of fire. The inspection service now offered by consultant IFC does just this. However, according to the UKTFA the inspections will cost “thousands of pounds” – its assertion that this won’t be a “show stopper” seems … well, optimistic. Why not make these inspections compulsory and encourage UKTFA members to pay for them? And while we’re at it, how about an update on that expensive R&D work on cheaper fire retardants?
Proponents of timber frame are fond of quoting statistics such as “70% of homes in Scandinavia are built using timber frame”. Before the UK can emulate that figure, the UKTFA must continue to push its members to do more. Those Colindale images are fading but they’re not behind us yet.
The next project meeting of Olympic programme manager CLM should be an interesting one. Obviously, Tony Douglas of Laing O’Rourke and Stephen Pyecroft of Mace will present a united front, but behind the scenes some sharp words are likely to be exchanged. The reason is that the firms are locked in a fight for the contract to build the Shard of Glass. Developer Irvine Sellar looks likely to be the only one with anything to gain from this scrap as he dangles before them the bait of western Europe’s tallest building in exchange for a fixed-price deal. One of the two looks certain to bite, but for the sake of an industry still recovering from Wembley stadium, let’s hope it isn’t more than it can chew.
Stuart Macdonald, deputy editor