We won’t know for some time the details of the devastating fire in Peckham last week
We don’t know exactly what caused it, or what, if anything, could have been done to prevent its spread. What we do know are the consequences: the speed with which it devoured the adjoining buildings, the 310 people forced to flee their homes, and the gnawing feeling that next time it could all be far more tragic.
If this were an isolated incident it would have been bad enough: but it’s not. Fires on this type of site are happening all too often, causing millions of pounds worth of damage and, in cases like Peckham, putting life at serious risk.
A quarter of all new homes in the UK are built using timber frames, a material which while under construction can go up in flames in minutes. The question is: are we taking the issue seriously enough? And who ultimately has responsibility for cracking down on the problem?
To the first question the answer has to be no. It’s a little unfair to say the timber frame industry is in denial – as a leading fire expert is saying this week (page 9) – but its efforts to introduce new procedures in the wake of recent fires have been of questionable effect. An attempt to provide a third party accreditation scheme to validate the procedures that have been put in place hasn’t been taken up. And besides, the efforts made by a timber frame manufacturer to stem the risk of fire can only work if they are matched by those of the main contractor or housebuilder.
Many of these fires are caused by arson, and in some instances bear the hallmark of organised crime. Unless measures including site security, better policing and more prosecutions are instigated, then no matter how many gold stars a timber frame supplier has on its letterhead, it won’t make any difference. It’s clear that to tackle this issue requires more than unilateral action. All parties – the police, the fire brigade, insurers, contractors and timber frame specialists – need to be putting their heads together under the auspices of the Health and Safety Executive. A review and analysis of the types of fire we’re dealing with would be a good starting point.
The efforts of the timber frame industry to introduce new procedures in the wake of recent fires have been of questionable effect
The Association of British Insurers is certainly getting worried and warning that premiums could rise for this type of construction. Building with timber frames brings advantages in terms of speed and sustainability. It would be ridiculous to see it priced out of the market.
Denise Chevin, editor
Well, it was fun while it lasted
Readers of this magazine will be all too aware that the party was over in Dubai – we’ve covered the aftermath often enough. But there was hope for a while that things had started to stabilise. The news that Dubai World has stalled on its debt repayments (pages 12-13) puts paid to any thoughts of recovering money from the likes of developer Nakheel any time soon, and stamps out any hope of an imminent return to confidence. Firms that hadn’t quite written off debt may have to now – and downsize even more on the back of it. That doesn’t mean that the UAE is a no-go area – Abu Dhabi continues to pour billions into new infrastructure – but the days when the only ceiling on constructing some weird and wonderful folly was the limit of an architect’s imagination are gone forever. The region will have to follow the same rules as property elsewhere – and that means decent spec, better quality of construction and spaces that stack up financially. The Burj Dubai, due to be completed next year, will be unrivalled for the world’s tallest building title for the foreseeable future. But instead of the monument to unbridled confidence that it once was, it will be one of hubris.