Timber Frame Construction: What’s wrong in the UK?

I spotted this article in Building Magazine about insurers threatening to pull cover for timber frame buildings.This, combined with highly publicized recent fires in London on building sites in Camberwell and Peckham. While investigations are ongoing, the whole thing seems a bit strange to me. Nearly all non-high rise apartment buildings in California are timber frame, due to the high seismic performance, low cost and environmental benefits of this form of construction. At the job I worked at prior to moving to London, I was did construction administration on a site composed of 15 timber-framed buildings in Oakland, California. Despite the its location in a statistically high-crime, urban area, nobody considered building in timber a high-risk proposition.

Why is there paranoia about fire on construction sites in the UK, whereas it is not a problem in California?  I have a feeling it is because large construction sites in urban areas in California have security on the job site 24 hours a day. It is very common for large buildings to be constructed on tight urban sites up to five stories tall entirely out of timber. While arson may be more common in the UK, it seems that with proper alarm systems and supervision it is entirely possible to prevent these sort of incidents from happening. The benefits of timber construction seem too great to rule out the method due to poor implementation so far.The biggest part of the problem seems to be that timber is unfamiliar to many contractors, and proper precautions are not taken because the disconnect between timber frame contractors and the general contractor (on many jobs in the US, the lead contractor is responsible for the timber frame).

Timber Frame construction at Tassafaronga Village, Oakland CA
7 acres of Timber Frame construction at Tassafaronga Village, Oakland CA

Hopefully, many of these problems can be worked out. Interest in this type of construction in the UK is high in light of the desire to reduce CO2 in construction- it seemed that innovative methods of timber construction were everywhere at last week’s Ecobuild conference here in London.

Timber frame under construction in Oakland
Timber frame under construction in Oakland