A burning issue

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Timber frame construction is common in new buildings but can be a fire hazard. Edward Murray examines insurers' specific concerns and asks how they are responding to these issues

At a recent Risc Authority seminar, Roy Bishop, deputy commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, gave a presentation on current issues and concerns relating to timber frame construction. As part of his presentation he revealed that 25% of all new buildings in the London area are of a lightweight form of this construction - and detailed what happened in 2006 when a severe fire broke out at a 25-acre site in Colindale, north London, where flats and retail outlets were being built.

Given the prevalence of this modern method of construction - and the severity of the Colindale fire - it is not surprising that associated fire risks are coming under greater scrutiny from the insurance industry. Dr Jim Glockling is technical director of the Fire Protection Association and also a director of Risc Authority - previously known as Infires. This body involves 33 different insurers that have all put money into a central pot, collating somewhere in the region of £600,000, to research the risk reduction issues surrounding fire and insurance. Asked for his view on timber frame designs and fire risk, Dr Glockling responds: "The risks in construction are very much greater and everyone has appreciated this."

Working groups

Risc Authority runs a number of working groups and one in particular is currently looking at timber frame construction, having undertaken a lot of work in this area since the Colindale fire. Although such constructions can be much better equipped to handle fire once the construction process has been completed and fire protection is in place, Dr Glockling explains there are still a number of areas that remain a concern.

Because the fire stopping panels are applied against the flammable timber frame, this raises issues over fire spread, he says. These panels can also make it difficult for fire fighters to locate the source of a blaze and this, in turn, tends to result in more water being used to extinguish fires, causing greater water damage.

These issues have been hovering over the insurance industry for some time and Douglas Barnett, head of customer risk management at Axa Insurance, says: "Timber frame construction is of increasing concern. We have been discussing it for a number of years."

Talking specifically about the level of damage that is being seen in claims involving such construction methods, he adds: "The fire spread is way beyond that we would expect. There are not more total losses, but the losses are to a far greater level than you would expect to see. We are also experiencing significant water damage as more water is being pumped in as fire fighters do not know where the fire is."

Mr Barnett says that over the last five to seven years there have been a significant number of timber frame buildings erected across the UK and so it will take time to gather evidence and establish exactly where, and to what extent, fire is a problem. One of the major issues for insurers is how well these buildings will perform in the future and it will be a number of years before long-term patterns and trends can be established as to how resilient these buildings are.

Andrew Miller, risk control manager at Allianz Insurance, says his company is also watching the situation closely. "We do not know how a lot of buildings will perform in the future as holes get drilled and damage occurs." It is this ability to drill holes into the wooden structure, and potentially breach existing fire protection, that could create real problems in timber frame constructions. If alterations are made, the worry is they could significantly compromise a building's fire resistance if they are not done correctly. Managing this process over the coming years is going to be very difficult for insurers.

Cost of commercial fires

It is no surprise that the insurance industry is worried about timber frame constructions when figures from the Association of British Insurers show that commercial fires cost the industry £753m in 2007 and £865m in 2008. However, despite this form of construction being put under the microscope, the UK Timber Frame Association is quick to point out that where best practice is followed - in both construction and ongoing maintenance of these buildings - there should be nothing for insurance providers or any other interested parties to be unduly concerned about.

Steven Streets, technical manager at the association, says the sector has worked hard to make sure that all of the benefits afforded by this method of construction can be enjoyed without the need to sacrifice on safety. The association accepts fire is an issue when buildings are under construction, but has put together a code of best practice to offer guidance on fire safety that should be used by those working on timber frame construction sites. The document states: "If the guidance here is followed, and if the usual health and safety rules are being followed, there is no greater risk of fire for timber frame than for any other method of construction."

Similarly, Mr Streets says that where ongoing maintenance is carried out to the correct standard, there should be no risk of timber frame constructions becoming compromised in their ability to cope with a fire. He explains: "If you take any building with any method of construction and you carry out alterations then that will affect the durability and the lifespan of the building."

So far as Mr Streets is concerned, therefore, the issues surrounding timber frame construction are not so much about the validity of its design or its integrity when faced with fire, but around risk management in construction and build and maintenance quality thereafter.

As for the insurance industry, the jury is still out and, as of yet, there has been no move to load premiums for properties being built in this way.

Both Allianz and Axa are coy about what sort of moves might be taken in the future and Mr Barnett will only say: "We are still in the early stages of working through this. We always look at the evidence and then price accordingly." The coming months and years will play a central role in both evidence-gathering and the pricing process as time reveals just how well timber frame construction can cope with the stresses of fire-related incidents.

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