Use of timber frame construction questioned after Stockport fire
Blaze sparks renewed safety fears
Concerns about the safety of timber frame construction have resurfaced after a blaze at a housing association building site in Stockport.
A Guinness Northern Counties £2.4 million five-storey partially constructed timber frame block of flats went up in flames in the early hours of Monday morning.
Sixty firefighters battled with the blaze for three hours as it threatened two nearby occupied blocks and barred the entrance to one, leaving its six residents in temporary accommodation until the building can be made safe.
The blaze has once again led to questions being asked about the safety of the construction technique.
Architect Sam Webb, who investigated the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block following an explosion in 1968, said he was ‘dubious’ about timber framed buildings used for multi-storey blocks. ‘Because there’s so much that can go wrong and we have seen this time and time again,’ he said.
Richard Baines, director of sustainable development at Black Country Housing, believed we have seen more timber frame construction site fires since the recession hit in 2008 because developers were compromising on security to cut costs.
‘If we had not had the economic collapse people would not be cutting costs in security and we would not be seeing all these fires,’ he said.
Arnold Tarling, a surveyor with 20 years’ experience inspecting public sector housing, said of timber-framed construction. ‘It’s not as safe as non-combustible materials – it can’t be.’
The safety of timber frame was raised after significant fire on a Peckham site in November 2009. A London and Quadrant Housing Group partially constructed block of flats went up in flames and spread to two nearby occupied blocks.
It prompted the Chief Fire Officers Association to meet with the government and manufacturers of timber frame homes to talk about measure to improve building site safety.
This lead to industry body the UK Timber Frame Association producing a construction site audit scheme, Site Safe, to improve fire safety on timber frame building sites. UK Timber Frame Association members had to produce documentary evidence showing they had explained fire risks to contractors and developers.
There were then fires at a five-storey timber frame building under construction in Peckham at the start of 2010 and a private half-constructed timber-framed block in the Yorker area of Glasgow in August that year.
UK Timber Frame Association guidelines state under-construction timber frame buildings over three storeys should have an out-of-hours watchman. Guinness Northern Counties said there was no 24-hour patrol but that the site was ‘secured with high level hoardings and it was well-lit and covered by the town’s CCTV system’.
A Guinness Northern Counties spokesperson said: ‘All appropriate risk assessments were completed as part of the design and the contract was working to the UK Timber Frame Association’s guidelines and recommendations.’
Dr Paul Newman, director of the UKTFA, said: ‘The fire incident in Stockport that destroyed a timber and masonry apartment block is a serious reminder of the critical importance of having robust security and safety procedures in place on all construction sites and adopting a timber solution appropriate to the site.’
The Stockport block would have provided 13 two bed apartments for rent and shared ownership as well as a new town centre office for Guinness Northern Counties Stockport team. It was the last building in the regeneration of a conservation area around Stockport Market.
Timber frame continues to be popular in the social housing sector and this week Hackney Council declared itself the first local authoirty to promote the building method in its planing policy. Some developers prefer it because it is quick to build.