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Sun September 26 2021

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London Assembly sounds fire alarm over timber-framed and tall buildings

20 Dec 10 The government should bring forward its planned review of fire regulations because of a “crisis in confidence” in timber-framed buildings.

We don't want any repeats of this
We don't want any repeats of this

That is the call from the London Assembly, whose planning and housing committee says the government should not wait until 2012 to begin its review because there is already a significant level of concern within the industry about the safety of timber-framed sites, it says.

The committee’s report also calls for improvements to the way fire risks are managed in tall residential buildings, claiming that one in five fire risk assessments in London is inadequate.

Policy priorities demanding new homes at higher densities and the use of low-carbon materials like sustainably sourced timber are driving an increase in the numbers of both tall and timber-framed residential building in London, which prompted the committee’s investigation. 

Planning and housing committee chair Nicky Gavron said: “This is an issue that cannot wait. There is a crisis of confidence about the safety of tall and timber- framed buildings and the government and construction industry must act now to tighten regulations and reduce fire risk.  As we construct at higher densities and with more environmentally friendly materials we will see more tall and timber-framed buildings.  It is therefore vital to current and future residents that we get fire safety absolutely right.”

Deputy chair Jenny Jones added: “This report should ring an alarm bell for Government and the construction industry.  Our investigation has uncovered a number of gaps in fire safety policy and practice. These must be addressed urgently to improve fire safety both while buildings are under construction, and once they are occupied.” 

During its investigation the committee heard evidence that, once constructed, timber-framed buildings pose no greater risk of fire than conventionally constructed buildings as long as upgrade works and DIY modifications are done properly. 

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However, it found that there was a need to improve fire safety during the construction phase. The report calls for temporary sprinklers to be installed on timber-framed sites, and for a mandatory requirement to inform the fire brigade of new timber-framed sites so firefighters know what type of fire they will be dealing with before they get to a blaze.

Because fires on timber-framed construction sites can be particularly ferocious and spread quickly, the report calls for local authorities to forbid occupation of timber framed sites until the whole development is complete.

Building regulations need to be reviewed specifically in relation to timber-frame construction techniques. The industry must also identify the safety critical stages of the construction phase, like the installation of barriers to stop fire spreading through wall cavities, and ensure inspections are made at these stages. 

With tall buildings, the committee reckons there is a problem with people carrying out fire risk assessments without being properly qualified for the job. It says the government should draw up mandatory minimum standards of competence for training and accrediting all assessors.

There is also a lack of information for residents of tall buildings, leading to uncertainty about evacuation procedures and people not realising that some DIY modifications, like installing extra plug sockets, can compromise fire safety measures. To address this, the government should require all social landlords to: publish a full register of fire risk assessments online; provide existing and new residents with better information about what to do in the event of a fire; and ensure that inspecting for unauthorised or damaging works are part of routine estate inspections by housing staff.

The report – Fire safety in London: Fire risks in London’s tall and timber framed buildings - is available here.

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