The blaze that swept through a Peckham street two weeks ago has left the timber-frame industry in little doubt that, next time, lives may soon be lost. But can the sector do more to ensure there is no next time?

There have been plenty of fires in big, half-built timber-framed developments, but nothing like Peckham. Radiant heat and embers from the south London blaze ignited neighbouring properties in the early hours of Thursday, 26 November, gutting a four-storey block of maisonettes, badly damaging another, spreading to two more and forcing 310 people from their homes.

The images of these burned-out council flats, less than a mile from Lakanal House, the sixties council tower block where six people died in a fire in July, has concentrated minds. Many people are acutely aware that next time a timber-frame scheme goes up, people might die. Jonathan O’Neil, the managing director of the Fire Protection Association (FPA), was quick to voice this fear in the aftermath of Peckham: “Ministers must act now before such fires not only ruin people’s homes and possessions but cause serious injury or tragic loss of life.”

The flames may have long since died down in Peckham, but the sparks are continuing to fly. The FPA and the Chief Fire Officers Association have called for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to increase safety checks on big timber-frame construction sites. Meanwhile, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) is concerned about the rocketing cost of commercial fire claims and has identified timber-frame construction as one of the contributing factors. It is mulling over the findings of its recently published paper, Tackling Fire: A Call for Action.

Unsurprisingly, the UK Timber Frame Association (UKTFA) is rattled. It has seen the intense media scrutiny of the Lakanal House fire and is all too aware of the repercussions should people die in a timber-frame blaze. “A fire like Peckham has the potential to really damage the timber frame industry,” says Geoff Arnold, the body’s chairman. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which nationwide panic prompts homebuyers to steer clear of completed timber-framed properties, despite the fact that they are safe once built. So – with its 25% market share of the country’s new-build housing at stake – what will the timber frame sector do now?

Cracking down

Previous fires have led the UKTFA to produce guidance aimed at making timber-frame sites safer. The advice includes designing out hot works, the safe storage of flammable materials, good site security and the early installation of cladding and plasterboard. The problem is that the timber-frame contractor has no power to ensure safety standards are maintained after it has put the frame up and left the job. In Peckham, the frame had been signed off before the fire.

To combat this problem, safety consultant International Fire Consultants (IFC) launched a third-party accreditation scheme in 2007, aimed at contractors. This provided training and guidance for firms, as well as site inspections. However, for a number of reasons – but primarily the implementation costs – it only ever did one job.

Because this had so little impact, the UKTFA is launching its own accreditation scheme, called Site Safe. From January, UKTFA members will fully brief contractors on the risks of fires and will pay organisations including warranty provider the NHBC to carry out inspections. The scheme will apply to timber-frame jobs of more than four storeys or 2,500m2 and any UKTFA member working on these jobs must participate.

But Arnold is still aware that the inspectors have no power to make contractors change site practice. “A contractor that doesn’t take this seriously poses a real risk to us,” he says. And the chances that contractors will ignore the advice are high because, as with the IFC scheme, some of the measures could be expensive. Permanent security, for example, could be necessary in high-risk areas.

In addition, there are concerns about the procedure. The idea is that inspectors would report unsafe working practices to the timber-frame manufacturer, who could take a range of action from complaining to the offending contractor to tipping off the HSE. Arnold agrees that informing on customers could be seen as bad for business. “There is a danger of that, so it has to be handled delicately,” he says. “But the risk of another Peckham outweighs that, so isn’t that worth a robust discussion with the contractor?”

Peter Jackman, the IFC’s chair, is sceptical about the plan. “It takes a detailed assessment and a lot of analysis to understand the risks specific to a site,” he says. The IFC scheme involved assessing the risks, training the contractor to tackle these and conducting follow-up checks, something Jackson reckons could cost £3,000 for a four-storey, 2,500m2 development. He says: “The timber-frame industry is still looking for a cheapjack accreditation scheme as a cure all.”

A costly business

Whether the UKTFA scheme works remains to be seen, but either way the risks of building with timber frame are likely to force costs up. Commercial fire claims increased 16% between 2007 and 2008, and are now running at £1.5bn a year, the highest level for 20 years. The upshot of the ABI’s recent research could well be that new terms and conditions are imposed on policyholders, as happened in the nineties after a series of site fires.

“The insurers could say this is how you have to build with timber frame, or maybe the contractor would have to go on a course that really spells out the risks of building with it,” says Peter Bressington, director of the fire engineering division of Arup. “If the contractor hadn’t done this and there was a claim there could be some comeback from the insurer.”

He adds that imposing terms and conditions on the industry in the nineties worked, as the number of fires did fall.

More pressure could come from the HSE if it heeds the calls for more safety checks on timber frame sites. It says fire safety on sites is already a priority and that it is preparing its strategy for the next financial year. “We will factor in what happened [at Peckham],” says Philip White, the HSE’s chief inspector of construction, adding once the investigation at Peckham has been concluded any lessons will be fed back into the industry. Either way, contractors should prepare for higher costs and more scrutiny when building with timber frame. The alternative is far worse: a serious, fatal fire could also mean the death of an industry.

Interview with Jeff Arnold, chairman of the UK Timber Frame Association