Big names line up to defend timber buildings against proposed fire-safety 'ban'

Glenn Howells Architects, AHMM, dRMM, Waugh Thistleton and developer Urban Splash are lobbying the government not to ban structural timber under proposed rule changes on fire safety

In response to the Grenfell tragedy, the government is consulting on further tightening restrictions on all combustible materials by prohibiting them from the external walls of any residential buildings in England and Wales, including hotels, taller than 11m.

Critics claim the inclusion of timber in this proposed ban is not only unnecessary on safety grounds but would badly damage the rise of mass timber construction – seen as a crucial means of responding to the climate emergency because it could slash the building industry’s carbon emissions.

The consultation was due to close on 13 April but has now been extended until 25 May. The Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) argues that timber should be exempt from the ban and has urged architects and others to respond to the consultation before it closes.

Glenn Howells Architects principal Glenn Howells said he suspected the proposed new ban was ‘another example of poorly thought-out science’ and said his practice had made a submission to the government consultation.

‘There is obviously an emotional urge to “do something” after a tragic event and everyone understands that,’ he said. ‘But there is a danger here in short-circuiting the truth about the safety in designing in timber.

‘Timber structures do not burst into flames like timber cladding can … CLT [cross-laminated timber] and glulam chars in a fire and performs better than steel … we need flexibility to work with experts and find ways to make sustainable and safe buildings.’

Howells pointed out that the UK’s approach to timber construction was in stark contrast with other countries, such as the US and France, and warned the British government’s approach might ‘kill off’ the nascent industry in engineered timber here.

‘Why aren’t we partnering with other countries and sharing knowledge?’ he said. ‘In France, President Macron has mandated the use of a minimum of 50 per cent timber construction on all public buildings from 2022. How can we be in such a different place?’

Jonas Lencer, a director at dRMM, said safety was the practice’s first priority but added: ‘We know there has not been enough testing to conclude the proposed ban.’

He said: ’We do not take issue with the government’s dedication to safety; of course it is better to err on the side of caution. Rather we take issue with the lack of clarity in guidance on the use of timber in buildings.

‘The new legislation has created uncertainty within the construction industry around the use of engineered timber structures in residential projects, making lenders and insurers increasingly cautious. A commitment from the government to support the testing of emerging systems would allow designers to respond confidently, and for the much-needed proliferation of low embodied carbon structures to happen swiftly and safely.

‘It is important that the government does not see this consultation as a closed book, but the start of a journey to net-zero without compromising safety.’

Waugh Thistleton and Urban Splash meanwhile have joined forces to urge friends and colleagues to take part in the consultation and write to their MPs and are calling for the ban to be focused on combustible cladding rather than external walls.

The consultation documents can be viewed here.

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