UK’s Cladding Crisis: Council Houses Tied Up in Blaze Threat

More than 580 timber-frame homes are tied up in a cladding crisis that a London Council has warned is "only the tip of the iceberg"

Wed 06 Mar 24


There are fears of a new “Grenfell” fire crisis after a London council raised the alarm after discovering that hundreds of low-rise timber frame council houses fitted with plastic cladding offer an extreme fire risk.

According to UK government forecasts, timber-framed low-rise housing makes up just 4% of English homes; however, the Rishi Sunak government, in December, published a new roadmap to increase timber-framed housing production across the UK – the concern relates to older low-rise dwellings that were retrofitted with UPVC cladding panels in the 1980s.

The Barnet council flagged the concern with Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, after reporting that at least 580 houses needed immediate refit before warning ominously that the area was only “the tip of the iceberg.”

It comes after the Guardian reports that a row of low-rise timber frame houses were destroyed in the borough in June after a fire spread rapidly across the terrace, gutting the properties – eight people escaped unharmed, and 30 residents evacuated from the surrounding area.

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A row of such homes in Moss Hall Grove in Finchley was destroyed in June when a fire spread rapidly across the terrace. (Photo Credit: London Fire Brigade)

The council has since found more homes with similar UPVC panels, which also carried a heightened risk of fire – with the one- and two-storey homes built with timber frames from the 1930s to the 1960s before being retrofitted with the material.

The repair will now cost £17m, with more than £3.6m to be borne by the taxpayer – however, this could expand if found across further council boroughs. In the meantime, the council has told occupiers “that whilst their homes contain significant hazard, there is no imminent risk.”

“We believe the 580 affected homes in Barnet are just the tip of the iceberg across the country,” according to Ross Houston, deputy leader of the council. “We’re sharing details with other local authorities and DLUHC [the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities] as clearly there is a need for a national plan to raise awareness and work out how best to support homeowners,” Mr Houston told the Guardian.”

The potential new danger comes amid an ongoing cladding crisis, which has been found to affect tall apartment blocks with combustible panels and insulation in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

So far, the government, social landlords and private developers have already allocated close to £12 billion to fix the problems, with 4,000 buildings affected across the UK, according to the latest government figures

So far, just 20% of the towers impacted by the combustible cladding have been repaired – with an extra 20% of building repair works underway.

The Grenfell Disaster shocked the world, but how did such a small domestic fire to develop into a deadly inferno? Footage courtesy of @telegraph.

The latest development could increase costs, further squeezing budgets for building much-needed social housing or repairing substandard homes.

According to The Local Government Association (or the LGA) – the peak body for town hall leaders across the UK- councils would “look to identify whether they have timber-framed buildings of which external wall and cladding materials pose a particular risk”.

According to Darren Rodwell, the building safety spokesperson for the LGA, “In light of other recent fires, it’s clear the government cannot risk any further delay … the government should guide all owners, so they are aware of where they need to take action.”

He added that the “government should make funding available to remediate problems where they are found so the cost of these works does not put additional strain on council budgets.”

Meanwhile, the London fire brigade said its local borough commander was involved in discussions with the council and fire experts.

A spokesperson for the UK government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said, “The building safety regulator is aware and is reviewing the situation,” before adding that “we will continue to liaise with the BSR and local authorities as appropriate to determine whether further action is necessary.”

Last year, Wood Central reported that the Grenfell disaster – which saw 72 victims die in 2017 – had been a roadblock to mass timber adoption across UK mid-rise and highrise buildings.

However, after the UK’s leading insurance company Aviva expanded its coverage to include mass timber buildings, Alastair Ogle from Waugh Thielston Architects said the country’s baseline understanding and knowledge about timber buildings had improved immeasurably.

“Aviva wants to embrace both: widening our underwriting appetite to insure commercial buildings using mass timber and using our risk management expertise to minimise associated risks,” according to Adam Winslow, CEO of UK & Ireland General Insurance for Aviva.

The Mass Timber Demonstration, Fire Test Program, has shown that mass timber buildings perform similarly to noncombustible construction. (Photo Credit: The Canadian Wood Council)
The Mass Timber Demonstration Fire Test Program has shown that mass timber buildings perform similarly to noncombustible construction. (Photo Credit: The Canadian Wood Council)

Last month, Wood Central reported that a 2023 report billed a “significant milestone in the advancement of mass timber construction”, addressing the fire risk in mid-rise and highrise buildings, identifying how exposed mass timber can withstand severe, “unsprinkled” fire conditions.

The findings, compiled in an extensive 121-page report, “Large-Scale Fire Tests of a Mass Timber Building Structure for the Mass Timber Demonstration Fire Test Program,” confirmed that mass timber remained stable and solid after enduring five different fire tests of varying severity and duration – improving understanding of exposed mass timber elements after exposure.

“We are very pleased by the report findings, which solidify the position of mass timber as a safe construction material,” according to Robert Jonkman, Vice President of Codes and Engineering at Canada Wood Council – the country’s peak body for forest products.

“This scientific proof of mass timber’s exceptional structural fire performance helps address concerns about its suitability for larger and taller building applications.”


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