Last Friday evening news started to break of a large fire at the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee campus. News broadcasters and social media channels were streaming live images of a major incident unfolding. Thankfully nobody was hurt. However the fire it seems was a significant one. It completely destroyed the new £15m GlaxoSmithKline building which was around 70% built by Morgan Sindall.
I know the University quite well having led the design and delivery of two new-build projects in the past, one of which is on the Jubilee campus. I was last down there just a few months ago for a meeting and saw this building emerging.
The proposal for the GSK building was innovative and placed a substantial emphasis on sustainability. The laboratory building was intended to be carbon-neutral over its lifetime and also targeted BREEAM ‘Oustanding’.
The fire investigations will hopefully reveal both the cause of the fire and why the damage was so total in terms of destruction. But one thing we do know is that the building had a structural timber frame, as oppose to more traditional steel/ concrete methods.
The use of timber in buildings has increased a lot in recent years, mainly due to its ‘green’ credentials. In simple terms; trees can be re-planted, whereas the environmental damage imposed by Steel and Concrete production are much greater. However, timber is also a solid fuel for fires and therefore risks are increased when using the material in construction, especially where the full fire protection strategy isn’t fully in place (protection to structure, compartmentation of the building, sprinkler systems etc).
As it happens I worked on a timber framed student accommodation development with the University out at their Sutton Bonington campus a few years back. When we did this, we had to ensure that robust life safety evacuation procedures were in place during the build at all times, meaning more temporary escape stairs were formed on the building.
There have been mixed views in the construction industry for sometime now about the use of timber framed buildings, specifically in relation to fire risk and associated insurances. In July 2006 a six-storey apartment block in Colindale, North London caught fire during construction and the structure collapsed in less than nine minutes.
The fire last week is a setback for the University and I wish the teams involved in rebuilding this project the very best. But I strongly suspect the risks/ issues around using timber framed buildings will resurface within the industry, sooner rather than later. Clients, Construction firms and insurance companies will once again focus on whether timber framed buildings really are sustainable? – in more ways than one of course.