The Fire Safety Bill: Why a science first, fact-based approach is necessary
18 May 2020
NO CURRENT conversation about timber is complete without comment on the Government’s catch-all ban pertaining to combustible materials. While there’s no question that the Fire Safety Bill is intended to enhance occupant safety, Jeremy English explains why we must not lose sight of timber’s inherent qualities as a building material.
At the end of 2018, as part of fire safety improvement measures intended to prevent another horrific blaze like that seen at Grenfell Tower, the (then) Housing Secretary James Brokenshire introduced new legislation banning combustible materials on new high-rise dwellings above 18 metres in height.
Late last year, the new Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick called for the height threshold for combustible materials to be lowered to “at least 11 metres” (or, typically, anything less than three storeys in height).
As has been reported in some detail by Fire Safety Matters, the second reading for the Fire Safety Bill – with the lowered threshold included – took place on 29 April. A date for the Committee stage is yet to be announced and the consultation deadline has been pushed back to 25 May due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Architects, builders, the suppliers of structural timber and many others passionate about the good that wood can do for this country are now rightly concerned about what the future holds for multi-storey timber buildings. Bear in mind here that this concern is being voiced at exactly the same juncture that many other countries are passing legislation designed to promote the use of more timber products in construction.
While there’s no question that the Fire Safety Bill is intended to enhance occupant safety, we absolutely mustn’t lose sight of timber’s inherent qualities as a building material. The inherent benefits of timber are those that have made it an increasingly popular choice for structural components. It’s easy to transport and modify, minimises noise pollution on site and happens to be highly cost-efficient to produce and use.
We as an industry are calling for an objective investigation. One led by facts and science rather than emotion.
To quash the use of wood in structures over 11 metres tall would be to fly in the face of the sustainable evolution that the construction industry and, more importantly, the nation so desperately needs.
Indeed, in its November 2019 report, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the timber industries observed: “Without using safe structural timber we cannot meet these targets [the Government’s net zero carbon commitment] and we will fail to address the construction industry’s contribution to climate change.”
A more sustainable, decarbonised economy can allow the planet to repair itself. The building materials we choose can be a key contributor towards this end goal. To choose timber is to choose a building material that would not adversely impact or inconvenience the way in which we live our lives. It's a material that can help build a more sustainable future.
Responsibly managed forests have always been the planet’s air cleaners and will continue to be so forever. As for a by-product of responsibly managed forests? High-quality, sustainable timber. Timber that has already taken from the air and locked away decades’ worth of harmful carbon dioxide.
Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton Architects – one of the UK’s leading proponents of timber construction, in fact – summed the situation up brilliantly earlier this year: “The reality is the evidence says we have 12 years left to sort out climate change. We simply must start changing the way in which we do things. We must keep pushing the message about the safety of cross-laminated timber. It’s not only quicker to put up. It’s also safer, healthier, lighter and also locks away carbon.”
Food for thought isn't it?
Jeremy English is Sales Director at Södra Wood UK