Hard evidence of method’s vulnerability triggers calls for better practice and tougher regulation

Fire safety experts have called for an investigation into government data that provides the first conclusive proof that timber-frame buildings suffer more damage than other kinds of structure in a fire.

The annual Fire Statistics Monitor, published by the communities department, is a comprehensive and detailed study showing that timber frame is more vulnerable during and after construction (see below).

James Glocking, technical director of the Fire Protection Association, which administers RISCAuthority, a research and lobbying body for the insurance industry, welcomed the report but said an investigation was needed.

One of the report’s findings was that there were 118 fires in completed non-residential timber-frame buildings compared with 774 for all other forms of construction. Glocking said: “That seems to be a disproportionately high number given the tiny number of non-residential timber-frame buildings. We need to make sense of that figure.”

It’s good to see statistics that show what we have been saying for a while

Douglas Barnett, AXA

His calls for an inquiry were backed by some in the insurance industry, which is concerned by the high value of claims arising from timber frame fires. Douglas Barnett, head of customer risk management at Axa, said: “It’s good to see statistics that show what we have been saying for a while. It’s our general feeling there are large issues that need to be addressed, such as build quality. There is some urgency to get stakeholders around the table to see what the issues are and understand them.”

Glocking, who is also concerned with workmanship issues, is helping the industry to produce best practice guides. These would be aimed at specialist trades including electricians, plumbers and bricklayers and made available through trade associations. He said he also wanted to produce a guide for occupiers and DIY-ers.

The timber-frame industry dismissed the government’s figures. Geoff Arnold, the UK Timber Frame Association’s chairman, said the report “lacked any real substance when it comes to understanding the issue of fire in timber frame”.

“The data shows that of 34,783 dwelling fires in the UK, only 359 were timber frame, which is1% of the total. How can we knock timber frame when most serious fires in dwellings are something other than timber frame?”

Bob Neill, the minister in charge of fire safety at the communities department, said: “We’ll work with the industry to establish whether there is evidence of specific risks associated with timber-framed buildings. We are also actively awaiting a London Assembly report on this issue and will look at its conclusions.”

What the report says

If there is a fire in a dwelling under construction, then 28% of timber-frame buildings will suffer more than 200m2 of damage, compared with only 4% of non-timber frame structures. The difference is less striking in completed homes: 47% of timber framed homes suffer more than 50m2 of damage compared with 32% of non-timber frame.