HSE pens open letter on timber frame fires

30 October 2014

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published an open letter to all parties involved in the design, specification, procurement and construction of timber frame structures.

After a spate of high-profile incidents, with the University of Nottingham chemistry laboratory fire being the most widely reported, the HSE’s letter outlines its expectations in relation to the management of fire risks prior to and during the construction of timber frame structures, which fall within its remit. The statement requests that ‘those making design and procurement decisions that significantly affect fire risk should consider and reduce the risk and consequences of fire during the construction phase through design and failure so to do may constitute a material breach.’

Responding to the open letter, FPA technical director Jim Glocking said: ‘The call for sustainability in construction has seen an increase in timber frame construction fires, characterised by rapid fire spread, enormous radiated heat and the large spread of embers, frequently causing secondary fires in adjacent and neighbouring properties. Such fires pose a major risk to those working on the site, the occupants of surrounding buildings and the firefighters who have to tackle a fire, because of early collapse.’

A plethora of guidance is now available for those working with timber frame and other modern methods of construction due to the serious fire risk such buildings pose during their construction phase. This includes the HSE’s Fire Safety in Construction Guidance and the FPA’s Joint Code of Practice for Fire Prevention on Construction Sites, which specifically addresses the issue of timber frame.

However, Dr Glockling continues by advocating the need for the timber frame industry and contractors to engage more with the insurance industry.  He adds: ‘Insurers have a wealth of information and risk management advice to offer to their customers, so it is essential that contractors consult with their insurers at every stage of the design and build. Insurer guidance on loss mitigation has been developed over many decades by understanding how building systems and materials perform in fire and this is where we are with timber frame.’

It is important to remember that insurers are not condemning timber frame, as it is a long established form of construction; however the parameters of its use have been extended and pushed to large structures over recent years.  Poor workmanship in the finishing of timber frame buildings has become more apparent with levels of fire damage in structures far exceeding those that would normally be expected.

Dr Glockling concludes “We are not calling for full scale change in the design and construction phase of timber frame, but rather sensible and cost effective change and the improvement in workmanship and surveillance during the construction phase.”

 

You can view the HSE’s letter at http://tiny.cc/smyjox