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Fire hazards associated with timber frame buildings

A series of fires in timber framed buildings under construction has raised their profile. Incidents include large fires in Newcastle (2007), Peckham, East London (2009), Camberwell (2009) and more recently Basingstoke (2010).

This has led to a Position statement by the CFOA, which reads: "In light of the recent significant fires involving large timber framed buildings under construction including Peckham, Camberwell and Basingstoke which all resulted in fire damage to adjacent buildings, CFOA is now calling for an urgent review of the Building Regulations to consider the issue of external fire spread from fires involving construction sites. Large timber framed buildings under construction pose a significant risk to firefighters, construction workers and members of the public."

Evidence indicates that a timber framed building is at the greatest risk of fire during the early stages of construction before fire protection measures are in place.

Guidance and initiatives have been produced to help reduce the risk of fire.

The UK Timber Frame Association (UKTFA) has provided clear guidance in its Sitesafe initiative ensuring UKTFA manufacturing member companies, that are working on large projects (4 storeys or more and/or with an aggregate floor area of more than 2,500 m2) give clear concise information and assistance to the Principal Contractor regarding fire safety on construction sites.

SiteSafe ensures all contractors involved in timber frame sites are fully briefed on identifying fire risks during the construction phase. While the responsibility for addressing the fire risk lies with the principal contractor, SiteSafe provides a framework through which any risk can be consistently communicated so that appropriate action can be taken.

The ‘16 Steps to Fire Safety on Timber Frame Construction Sites’, produced by the UKTFA, is expected to be implemented in conjunction with the ‘Joint Code of Practice (JCoP) on the Protection from Fire of Construction Sites and Buidings Undergoing Renovation published by the Construction Federation and The Fire Protection Association.

The objective of the JCoP is to prevent fires on construction sites in general and the latest edition contains a specific Annex covering ‘best practise advice for the construction of large timber frame buildings’.

The JCop highlights the need for a suitable and sufficient Fire Risk Assessment and advises that timber frame buildings should be compartmented at the earliest stage possible.

Furthermore, as work is in progress consideration should be given to the possibility of fitting temporary horizontal fire retardant boarding to reduce the spread of fire and lend added protection to any exposed timber. Also that the final cladding on the building should be fitted at the earliest possible stage in order to lend it further protection.

Free copies of the JCoP can be obtained via the RISC authority website, once registered.

One significant risk associated with timber frame buildings is arson, with many being targeted before the frame is sufficiently protected.

To address this issue, it is important that the necessary security measures are considered and implemented. Considerations will include perimeter fences, temporary alarms, surveillance and / or manned guarding.

Account must also be taken of ensuring swift response to fire incidents and the provision of adequate water supplies for the Fire and Rescue Services.

Although once completed the risk of fire spread is drastically reduced precautions are still needed to be certain any fire starting can not spread easily through the hidden voids within the structure.

The quality of workmanship during building is therefore vital in relation to the success of fire safety provisions. It needs to be ensured the finished work is of a high standard, in accordance with the design criteria particularly in relation to the installation of cavity barriers and adequate fire stopping in the hidden voids.

However, even with good construction workmanship all this can be compromised over time by wear and tear, building refurbishment and other alterations by professional DIY persons. Adequate ongoing maintenance and monitoring of the building are therefore vital.

Martin Hartley, property class specialist at Aviva, commented: "The use of timber frame construction, which has increased significantly in recent years, introduces additional potential risks which need to be robustly managed not only in the construction phase but also throughout the life of the building to help reduce the risk of fire starting and also to help minimise its rapid spread." ADNFCR-2134-ID-800348853-ADNFCR