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Timber-built social homes "blaze risk"

Houses built with a central timber frame are a fire disaster waiting to happen, experts have warned.

The Fire Protection Association (FPA) said the nature of the method, whereby a traditional block is erected around a wooden skeleton, means that relatively minor fires could quickly spread to the core of the building without being noticed.

Statistics released by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) seem to support the claims, with the figures showing that blazes in such homes have a greater average spread than those in traditionally-built houses.

Timber-frame construction has grown in popularity in recent years because it is cheap and produces results quickly. Once used predominantly in the building of individual properties, it is now thought to be present in 60% of all new social homes.

While the the timber-frame industry insists its buildings are safe because combustible cavities are surrounded by fireproof walls, experts say that something as small as incorrectly-mounted flatscreen TV could puncture holes in this layer of protection.

One senior employee of a leading insurer said it was a case of “when, not if” a blaze in a block built using a central timber frame caused a significant loss of life.

Jim Glockling, technical director of the FPA, said more needed to be done to assess the number of homes that could be affected.

“Often these blocks are put up four at a time,” he explained. “When we investigate a fire and find a construction fault in one, can we assume the other three buildings are perfect? Possibly not. They might need a close look too.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • This is an interesting post. We all know that timber burns yet we still insist on it being used in domestic properties. The reason is simple. It does the job. The Fire Protection Association, SUPPORTED by the insurance industry, makes a valid point. A smouldering fire within a structure could cause considerable damage without the occupents being aware. Is this a prewarning that such properties will have an insurance premium added? The Department of Communities and Local Government are subject to the October budget review. Will they still exist by the end of the year? I would love to live in a modern timber framed house.

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  • The problem is not limited to TF housing. A research project called TF2000 looked at the fire performance of such housing and undertook tests on a specially constructed block in the Cardington hanger at BRE/FRS. Two hours after one of these tests had been completed whisps of smoke were seen emanating from the exterior walls and heat seeking equipment was needed to locate the source. Smouildering debris from the fire test had fallen down inside walls where cavity barriers should have stopped it. The barriers had been installed as the building was erected but as the building grew mortar surplus was flicked down the void by bricklayers and this destroyed the cavity barriers, allowing the smouldering debris to fall and start another fire.

    This illustrates another major point, with the exeption of specialist fire protection contractors many other trades are totally unaware of the importance of fire separating elements or "compartmentation" and they breach these elements in their work. Plumbers, electricians, heating engineers, IT firms and many others run services that cause FSEs to be penetrated and do not adeqautely seal the penetrations with fire resisting materials to a known standard. The example of the TV instalation is just a case in point and poor penetration sealing and other such faults are always serious, in a TF building it can be even worse.

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