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Insurer wants tougher testing of materials after Bolton blaze

20 November 2019 | By Neil Gerrard

Image: GMFRS

A leading insurer has called for more thorough testing of building materials, after a blaze at a six-storey student accommodation block last week that left two people injured.

The fire at The Cube in Bolton saw flames spread rapidly up the building’s cladding. Although fire safety tests in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster conducted by Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service (GMFRS) determined that the cladding was not of the aluminium composite (ACM) type, GMFRS is now investigating what role the cladding played in the fire.

The cladding used on the building has been widely reported to be high-pressure laminate (HPL), although GMFRS has not confirmed this.

Now Tom Roche, a senior consultant for international codes and standards at commercial property insurer FM Global has warned that the testing of products used in the construction of buildings needs to be more rigorous.

Roche said: “The fire at The Cube student accommodation in Bolton over the weekend was a reminder of the depth of issues within England’s building regulations and fire-safety regime. The quick spread of the fire, injuries, the need to help evacuate people and the damage caused should rightly prompt renewed concern about the performance of numerous buildings in the face of fire.

“The high-pressure laminate (HPL) cladding used on The Cube was clearly combustible. The discussions around the height of the building and whether it was within certain parameters of the building regulations guidance may be important from a technocratic perspective but to all those watching the end result was the same; the fire clearly spread up the building. It did not matter whether it was 17m or 18m, it failed to stop the fire from spreading across its external surface, making both the property and its inhabitants extremely vulnerable to a fire.

“This failure highlights the importance of properly testing building materials for their intended use, irrespective of height. Most importantly, there is a need to ensure that those involved in designing and refurbishing buildings have a sound understanding of building and fire science. This should drive the proper selection of materials.”

Roche warned that there has been a “number of significant fires” over recent months that have destroyed or severely damaged buildings.

He added: “Quite plainly this building was not resilient to fire and again we would renew the call that regulations need to change to consider property protection. Moving forward, we must hope that building owners take account of a clear lesson from The Cube fire; that to protect their properties from fires they must go beyond current life-safety focused regulations - building resilience, and resulting in a better outcome for all.”

Roche’s comments came after the Fire Protection Association (FPA) urged the government to extend its ban combustible materials on the external walls of buildings to buildings of all heights, rather those over 18m or six storeys.

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