The pictures on this week’s cover demonstrate how fast fire can consume timber-framed buildings while they are under construction.
The facts are as follows. Work was under way at a site being developed by St George in the north London suburb of Colindale – one six-storey apartment block was almost finished, the other had just got its structural frame. A fire was started, probably by accident, at the unfinished building. Four minutes after a site worker raised the alarm, the fire brigade was on the scene. Five minutes after that, the frame had burned to the ground and ignited the second block. Despite the presence of 20 pumps, this also burned down. Two nearby buildings were damaged, one severely, and 2,500 people were evacuated. If anyone had been working at the top of the frame, they would probably have died a horrible death.
Thanks to an interview with the London Fire Brigade, we can piece together what happened, and assess the implications (pages 22-25), but before we start, let’s get one thing straight: timber-framed buildings are as safe as any other, once completed. But there’s no denying that they’re more vulnerable before then. In fact, the destruction of the second block shows they’re vulnerable until
last-minute fire protection measures, such as doors, are fitted. Fire is less likely to rip through steel or concrete buildings simply because these materials are not flammable. At the very least, this pushes up insurance premiums for timber frame; at worst, it puts lives at risk. The fire brigade and fire engineers agree that the industry needs to act.
It’s not a question of legislation – it’s a matter of recognising the risks, doing research and publishing the results. It will probably mean changes to working practice, such as fitting fire protection as soon as the frame is up. In the longer term, technical advances such as closed panel systems delivered complete with fire protection will reduce risk and, of course, it helps to follow ordinary fire prevention best practice.
The danger is that progress will be slowed by the feud between the
timber-frame lobby and advocates of traditional construction. The usual form is for the former to say there’s nothing wrong with timber frame and the latter to say it’s a death trap. The brick-and-block lobby need to recognise that timber frame is here to stay, and the timber-frame people should accept that there is a learning curve with modern systems that could take years to perfect. The last thing the industry needs now is to fiddle while Rome burns.
Thomas Lane is assistant editor for Building magazine