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Misconceptions around buildings and fire safety must be addressed

Confederation of Timber Industries

4 min read Partner content

Recent debate around combustible materials has focused too much on banning and limiting materials, including timber, rather than addressing how they are regulated, says Roy Wakeman OBE, Chair of the Confederation of Timber Industries.

The number one priority from industry and Government must be to ensure that highly performing houses, and indeed all buildings, are built safely and resiliently. However, responses to a recent Government consultation showed that there is a very real concern in the industry that current legislation does not provide enough clarity, or necessarily make buildings safer.

I am of course talking about the Government’s ban on combustible materials, following its review into Banning the use of combustible materials, in 2018. This resulted in a ban on combustible cladding on all new residential buildings above 18m in height. The independent Hackitt Review recommends that the focus should be on increasing competence, and giving clarity around responsibilities, but the Government wants to ignore this advice and ban materials, rather than poor practice.

The core issue with the current legislation is that it does not differentiate between the external cladding, and the structural wall itself. This is causing confusion for industry stakeholders, as evidenced by the responses printed in the latest consultation document. We support creating safer, higher performing buildings, but many misconceptions around the role of timber and fire safety need to be addressed.

When used properly, timber is as safe as any other construction material.  Unlike other materials, if timber is exposed to fire, the outer layer burns and chars, forming a protective layer which then prevents the further spread of fire. In Grenfell Tower, the wooden fire safety doors performed and survived the fire whilst the composite, plastic and steel products around them burned and collapsed.

Arguably, the biggest challenge to date has been lack of adherence to and enforcement of, existing building regulations and guidance. There has also been some confusion and a lack of clarity in the existing regulatory framework. Additionally, the construction tendering process is designed to drive everything down to lowest cost, meaning contractors operate on extremely low margins. Not only does this lead to collapses like Carillion, it puts many more under stress. This encourages specifications to be ignored, losing the performance standards that go with them. We need to ensure there is a ‘golden thread’ of regulatory oversight on construction sites, ensuring that from start to finish, houses are being inspected properly to ensure the correct designs and installations are being followed.

Unless there is a cultural shift, any changes to the regulatory framework will not have the intended effect of making buildings safer.  As the London Fire Brigade said in its response to the Government’s initial consultation on banning so-called combustible materials in 2018: “a ban requires careful consideration to ensure there are not unintended consequences.

Any changes to policy on the use of materials or the regulatory framework must be evidence-based; this is likely to be a more effective means of ensuring buildings are as safe as possible than headline-grabbing talk of blanket bans.

This is vitally important because we are at risk of discouraging the use of the most sustainable, effective and attractive construction material available to us. It is certainly true that whilst there are certain challenges the industry must face up to, there are readily available solutions that can ease the current, and dire, housing shortage. One of these solutions required to build homes the UK so desperately needs, is an increase in the use of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). When building houses utilising MMC, timber frames are built using offsite construction methods, and are quicker, cheaper, quieter and more environmentally friendly than traditional construction methods.

Currently, only around 22 % of homes in England are built using timber frames, with only a slightly higher percentage UK-wide. This represents a significant missed opportunity. If an additional 270,000 homes per year were built using MMC, homes would not only be built more quickly, but they would boost local economic development, modernize the construction industry, and help the UK become a world leading low-carbon economy. For example, the Committee on Climate Change calculated that if 270,000 homes were built out of timber, this would absorb and store 3,000,000 tonnes of carbon.

The technology and knowledge exists in the timber industry to build the homes the UK needs, and build them sustainably. There is already capacity to double the number of new build homes which use timber frame to 100,000. Our Government should back their house building promises with long-term spending commitments, building regulations that allow for innovation, and encourage the use of low carbon materials to reduce emissions.

This consultation has quite rightly often been referred to as a ban on cladding. To improve clarity, the Government should keep the focus on cladding, and the manner of its attachment to the external wall, rather than the make-up of the structural wall itself. This will allow the UK to continue using innovative low carbon, high performance materials, and achieve our targets for sustainable construction.

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