Experts agree fire safety is a “problem of competence”

“Timber has a reputation for being a flammable material – but experts say incompetence, not material choice, is what causes fire”

Jose Torero, head of the Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering Department at University College London, is an acknowledged expert when it comes to safety standards in construction. So, his thoughts on fire safety for timber products are well worth reporting on. Timbers’ fire safety is always a hot topic of discussion, but more so nowadays for two reasons: first, timber is increasingly being seen as a material of choice to help reduce our carbon footprint and fight climate change; and second, the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire still looms large in our collective consciousness.

“Timber can be perfectly safe if it’s done right,” Torero said. “This is not a technological or technical problem. It is fundamentally a problem of competency. The problem is whether [building designers] are competent enough to be able to make a proper assessment, and that is a much, much, more complicated question.”

This opinion – that timber can be perfectly safe, when used correctly – is fast becoming an industry standard. Architecture and design magazine Dezeen stated that the “experts” they spoke to “were unanimous that mass-timber buildings are not inherently unsafe.”

Speaking to that publication, OFR Consultants’ technical director, Danny Hopkin, stressed that, while you “have to address the specific hazards that [timber] buildings present […] it’s definitely possible to build timber buildings that meet an adequate level of safety.”

One of the things that many people do not realise is that timber forms a char layer when it burns, protecting itself and everything behind it, and helping to reduce a fire’s ferocity. This automatically increases its safety levels, but (of course) does not mean timber is somehow invulnerable to fire – or that we can count on it to protect us. As Rory Hadden, Rushbrook lecturer in fire investigation at the University of Edinburgh, says: “every material has its problems, you just need to figure out how you manage that.”

At Quercus, we take fire safety very seriously, and we encourage all of our customers to do their due diligence in regards not only to timber’s safety, but to the risks inherent in any building material they use.

However, we are also aware of the threat climate change poses to our planet and our (and every other) species survival. Timber, which is a renewable material that captures and stores CO2, and cools the atmosphere, is increasingly being seen as a major building block in the attempt to reduce our carbon emissions and slow down global warming. That is why it is vital that regulators, as well as those of us in the timber industry and our customers, ensure timber is not made out to be more dangerous than it really is.

If you want any help deciding which timber would be perfect for your next project, or you’re simply looking for a quote, give Quercus a call on 0845 50 50 311. Our friendly and professional team will be happy to give you the benefit of their experience.