Fire Safety and Timber Construction: Whats Changed?

Fire Safety and Timber Construction: Whats Changed?

A Wooden Wonderland or a Burning Blaze?

As an architect, I’ve always been fascinated by the potential of timber construction. The warm, natural aesthetic, the environmental benefits, and the design flexibility – it’s a material that seems to have it all. But when it comes to fire safety, there’s been a lot of uncertainty, and even fear, surrounding the use of timber in taller, more complex buildings.

The Timber Transformation

That is, until recently. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the way timber construction is viewed and regulated. The introduction of new building code requirements in the 2021 International Building Code (IBC) has paved the way for a timber revolution, allowing for the construction of taller, more ambitious mass timber buildings than ever before.

According to the International Code Council, the 2021 IBC will include three new construction types – IV-A, IV-B, and IV-C – specifically designed to accommodate mass timber and cross-laminated timber (CLT) structures. These new provisions allow for buildings up to 18 stories and 270 feet in height, a significant increase from the previous heavy timber limits.

But what’s really behind this dramatic shift? How have the fire safety concerns surrounding timber construction been addressed? And perhaps most importantly, should we still be worried about the risks?

Confronting the Combustible Conundrum

I’ll admit, when I first heard about these new timber construction types, I was skeptical. After all, timber is a combustible material – how could it possibly be safe for use in taller buildings?

As fire safety experts have pointed out, the key lies in understanding the nuances of timber’s behavior in a fire, and developing the necessary expertise to design for it properly. It’s not as simple as “timber burns” or “timber self-extinguishes” – the reality is much more complex.

“Timber can be perfectly safe if it’s done right,” says José Torero, a world-leading expert on mass timber fire safety. “This is not a technological or technical problem. It is fundamentally a problem of competency.”

The Crucial Role of Competency

You see, when it comes to timber construction, there’s a vast difference between understanding the material in a controlled testing environment and knowing how to apply that knowledge to real-world building design. And unfortunately, as the demand for timber buildings has skyrocketed, the investment in developing that critical expertise hasn’t kept pace.

As Danny Hopkin, technical director at OFR Consultants, explains, “It’s definitely possible to build timber buildings that meet an adequate level of safety, but you cannot build anything you want without constraints. You have to address the specific hazards that those buildings present.”

Things like the amount of exposed timber, the size of windows and rooms, and the potential for external fire spread – these are all factors that can dramatically impact a timber building’s behavior in a blaze. And if designers and builders aren’t fully aware of these risks, that’s when things can go terribly wrong.

Lessons from History (and Grenfell)

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this play out before. Joe Giddings, UK networks lead at Built By Nature, draws a chilling comparison to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, where flammable cladding materials contributed to the rapid spread of a devastating fire.

“If we breed false confidence without competency becoming widespread, we’re playing a dangerous game,” Giddings warns. “We shouldn’t play down the fire safety concerns.”

And he’s right. As much as I’m excited about the potential of timber construction, I can’t help but feel a twinge of unease when I hear some of the more zealous advocates downplaying the risks. Because the truth is, the consequences of a major timber building fire could be catastrophic – both in terms of loss of life and the potential backlash against the entire industry.

A Measured Approach to Timber’s Transformation

That’s why I believe it’s so important for us, as designers and builders, to take a measured, thoughtful approach to this transformation in timber construction. We need to be honest about the challenges, engage proactively with fire safety experts, and invest in developing the necessary skills and knowledge to make these buildings truly safe.

As Carmen Gorska, a fire safety engineer with a PhD on fires in engineered-timber structures, puts it, “It is an amazing material, but we have to know how to design with it.”

And that’s exactly what the code development process behind those new IBC construction types aimed to achieve. According to the ICC, the Ad Hoc Committee on Tall Wood Buildings spent years studying the science, conducting full-scale fire tests, and developing rigorous requirements to ensure the safety of these new timber buildings.

A Future Built on Timber (and Trust)

So, as I look to the future of timber construction, I’m cautiously optimistic. I believe these new code provisions, and the growing body of expertise behind them, represent a major step forward. But I also know that we can’t afford to get complacent.

As David Barber, a specialist in the fire safety of mass-timber structures, warns, “It would be people who haven’t understood what they don’t know, people who haven’t been experienced enough with mass timber to have spent the time and the effort to actually find out the stuff they don’t know” who are most likely to run into problems.

That’s why, at our timber building and woodworking company, we’re making a concerted effort to stay at the forefront of this evolving landscape. We’re investing in training, collaborating closely with fire safety experts, and always keeping a critical eye on the latest developments.

Because the truth is, the future of timber construction depends on trust – trust in the material, trust in the design process, and trust in the people bringing these buildings to life. And that’s a responsibility I’m proud to shoulder, one step at a time.

So, while the path forward may not be simple, I believe the rewards of getting it right are truly transformative. A future built on timber – sustainable, innovative, and above all, safe. That’s the kind of future I want to be a part of. Don’t you?


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