Timber frame buildings are vulnerable to fire during construction but,
as Mike Stevenson, Development Director at Sidey, points out; there are
simple measures to reduce risks.
In recent years there has been a spate of heavily publicised fires
involving timber frame construction that has raised concern within the
construction industry and challenged us to find answers to the problem
The first serious case was in 2006, when a six-storey housing
development under construction in Colindale, North London burnt to the
ground in less than nine minutes. More recently, in 2010, a construction
site in Peckham, South London burnt so fiercely that it swept to nearby
housing forcing tenants to be evacuated as the fire spread through their
housing estate. This year the £50 million Radclyffe Park development in
Ordsall, Salford – again under construction – was destroyed by fire.
The media coverage has – predictably – focussed on the severity of the
blaze and the rapid collapse of the unprotected frame but fire officers
have raised more informed concerns, with Peter Holland Vice President of
the Chief Fire Officers Association and Chief Fire Officer of Lancashire
Fire and Rescue Service (CFOA), commenting: "Where a fire occurs in a
timber framed building, particularly one under construction, the outcome
is totally devastating".
The point, though, that was recognised that the timber frame
construction itself is not a fire risk – the structural timber used in
construction is not easy to set alight – it requires effort, so all the
major construction site fires involving timber frame are the result of
determined, deliberate and malicious damage.
Nonetheless the CFOA and the Greater London Assembly were so concerned
that they called for an overhaul of the Building Regulations, a call
that was rejected. But the timber frame industry has had to answer this
challenge and has done so in several ways.
One response from the UK Timber Frame Association (UKTFA) has been to
produce guides to construction site management that minimise the
opportunity for arson. It has written “16 Steps to Fire Safety” in
collaboration with experts such as the London Fire Brigade and Health &
Safety Executive, together with “Reducing the Risk of Timber Frame Fires
In this the focus is not simply upon securing the site against arsonists
and upon making the best use of timber frame’s speed of construction:
Exposed timber frame structures can burn and generate a lot of radiant
heat but its rapid erection means that full fire protection can be in
place long before other methods of construction. In particular its
recommendation on “Removing opportunity for fires” says that “it is
appropriate to look at the construction process to include windows to be
installed as early as possible or to use robust wire mesh temporary
windows and doors. In addition, once watertight, plaster boarding and
fire proofing of the ground floor level is recommended as a further
measure to reduce risk of ignition to exposed timber surfaces.”
This is the point at which proprietary systems can make a real
difference as timber frame manufacturers can devise various means of
contributing to site safety through improving the speed at which
structures are erected and installing doors and windows earlier in the
production process – offsite where possible.
Sidey’s own patented contributions to speeding the pace of construction
are KitFix® and
Scratchguard, two products that enable a greater proportion of the
construction process to take place safely off-site within the factory.
Together they enable developers to erect buildings more quickly, hold
fewer materials on site and produce a fire-protected envelope.
Designed specifically for off-site manufacturing, the patented KitFix® System
enables timber frame kit manufacturers to install fully glazed, fully
finished windows and doors into their panels as part of the production
cycle which can then be stacked, stored and transported as normal.
This glazing, whether in windows or doors, is protected from damage on
site and in transit with Scratchguard, a factory applied protective
coating that also provides a semi-transparent but opaque glass coating
that increases site security while allowing enough light into the
building for work to continue.
Using KitFix® ,
windows and doors are factory fitted in less than three minutes and
final fixed in less than two minutes. As a result buildings can be made
wind and watertight in one day without any need for scaffolding
adjustment – step-ups, for instance – and follow on trades can start
Once the building is ready for handover, the Scratchguard can be peeled
off, cleaning the glass as it comes off. This operation takes just
seconds, far faster than window cleaning, and so speeds up the handover
process. Once peeled, the coating can be rolled into a ball and disposed
of as it is wholly biodegradeable as well as non-flammable.
By using these two products it is possible to follow the UKTFA
guidelines in three ways: by installing windows as quickly as possible
in the construction process; producing a watertight building that can be
plaster boarded and fire-protected far sooner than is possible using
conventional methods of window installation; and reducing the amount of
potentially flammable material kept on site.
Proprietary systems such as these all help towards minimising the risk
of arson but only as part of a comprehensive approach such as the
SiteSafe initiative where speed of construction works hand in hand with
site security and good housekeeping.
Developed by UKTFA, SiteSafe aims to minimise the risk of fire on timber
frame construction sites by ensuring that all contractors involved in
timber frame sites are fully briefed on identifying fire risks during
the construction phase. It provides a framework through which any risk
can be consistently communicated so that appropriate action can be taken
and if fully endorsed by the CFOA. As Peter Holland of CFOA noted: “A
timber frame construction site that has adopted and applied SiteSafe is
really doing as much as it can to minimise the risk of fire on site.”
Although SiteSafe was developed for large projects (four storeys or more
and/or with an aggregate floor area of more than 2,500 m2) its basic
tenets and approach can be applied successfully to smaller jobs, in
particular its insistence on liaising with the local Fire and Rescue
Service during construction.