Insurer’s £2.6m claim against Taylor Wimpey to raise premiums and heap pressure on builders

Housebuilders could be hit by higher insurance premiums and added deterrents to using timber frame if a £2.6m court claim against Taylor Wimpey is successful.

The claim has been launched by insurer Brit Insurance Holdings and Heathside (Hounslow) Management Company for the loss of an occupied timber-framed apartment block in a fire in west London in June 2008.

The insurer is seeking the cash from George Wimpey, Taylor Wimpey and timber frame erector Brendan Flynn Construction for the costs of rebuilding two apartment blocks, temporary accommodation and damage to residents’ possessions.

Fire safety experts have warned that the case could set a worrying precedent.

According to the writ, Brit Insurance says cavity barriers were either inadequately installed or missing. It claimed the flats did not conform to regulations and that properly installed fire barriers would have limited the fire to just two flats.

Taylor Wimpey declined to comment and Brendan Flynn Construction was unavailable.

All future fires in timber-framed buildings may be investigated with this in mind

Jim Glockling, FPA

Jim Glockling is the Fire Protection Association’s technical director and group chair of RISCAuthority, a technical research group set up by insurers. He said the legal move was significant because it showed insurers were trying to limit their losses where fires caused disproportionate damage to defectively constructed timber-framed apartment blocks and warned more such action could follow.

He said: “If this does form a landmark decision, all future fires in timber-framed buildings will be investigated with this in mind. When new timber-frame buildings come up to be insured, if there is a suspicion the fire stopping measures aren’t installed properly, a survey may be needed before an insurer will cover it.”

He also warned the case could do “reputational damage” to timber frame.

Robin Hardy, a housebuilding analyst at KBC Peel Hunt, said it was unusual for an insurer to go after a housebuilder for damages and the likely result would be higher premiums.

He said: “Knowing the mindset of insurers, it will not take much for them to put premiums up where the balance of risk is altered.”

A spokesman for the Association of British Insurers said premiums would not necessarily rise on a single case, but added that it served as “a timely reminder that will add further pressure on builders using timber frame”.

The UK Timber Frame Association (UKTFA) said it was understandable that insurers sought redress for poor quality construction.

Geoff Arnold, chair of the UKTFA, said: “If something isn’t built properly it’s fair enough that people claim for that loss. Buildings just need to be built correctly.” He added that the UKTFA would shortly be issuing guidance on the correct installation of fire barriers and was looking into the possibility of UKTFA members fitting these in the future rather than leaving this to follow-on trades.