Respond to the government consultation before 25 May make primary structural timber exempt, says architect Seb Lomas. Christine Murray reports
The UK government is seeking views on the ban of combustible materials – a ban that has severely impacted the use of timber, a material considered by the UK Committee on Climate Change as critical in decarbonising construction.
Architect Seb Lomas is calling on everyone in the built environment to make their voices heard.
“Categorically we are not saying timber at any cost,” says Lomas, representing campaigning group Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN). “What we want is the government to differentiate between cladding and structure.”
ACAN wants primary structural timber to be excluded from the ban, asking government to “focus the ban on combustible cladding, as distinct from external walls.
“This will help provide the clarity needed for designers and specifiers to build better and safer.”
Enacted in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, Lomas says the government ban on combustible materials in external walls of buildings failed to distinguish between primary structure, secondary structure and cladding.
This makes a big difference to zero carbon architecture: wood-use in construction is seen as critical to capturing and sequestering carbon by growing trees to build homes.
Lomas says it’s vital that we be encouraging the use of timber in any form, albeit safely: “Fire engineers should steer its use, and further research is required, taking a science-based approach.
“What we want is the government to differentiate between cladding and structure”
“The government needed to reassure the public in banning everything combustible. What’s frustrating is that they don’t even talk about differentiating between cladding and primary structure.”
“Scottish building regulations have acknowledged and realised the difference between structural timber and cladding. We could even just adopt those while further research is done,” Lomas points out.
“We also have (British Standard) BS8414, which was found to be fit-for-purpose in the Hackitt Review,” says Lomas, referring to the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety undertaken following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The ripple effect of the ban, Lomas says, is a lack of confidence in the use of timber from architects and the insurance industry alike.
UK designers have been at the forefront of innovation in structural timber, with the expertise of architects such as Waugh Thistleton and dRMM now being exported around the world.
But Lomas says, instead of expanding, the UK’s leadership in this field is being undermined by the government ban.
“We 100% support measures to build safely,” Lomas says. “We believe we can have primary structural timber in external walls.”
Asked whether he believes the powerful steel and concrete lobby is responsible for the sidelining of structural timber, Lomas says he wouldn’t be surprised. “It may not be by mistake that timber has been implicated in this way.”
“What I can say for sure is that the concrete industry has come together under one unified voice, and so as the steel industry, in a way that the timber industry has failed to do so. They have missed this opportunity.”
Any changes to the ban will affect every new residential building with a floor above 11 metres, roughly four storeys.
Comments are being received until 25 May, 2020. ACAN is asking people to fill out the survey using their own words and specify that timber primary structure be exempt from the ban. Guidance is available on the ACAN website.