Gemma Worton by

Posted on August 26, 2014

As recently noted in our “Bob the builder” post, the UK construction industry is gearing up to grow substantially as demand and investment returns to the property market.  Modern methods of construction are increasingly a consideration for developers –  in part driven by the speed with which properties can be erected alongside the usual costs and environmental pressures upon these developers.

Pii have been liaising with Zurich insurance to discuss the issues around modern methods of construction which include timber framed buildings and so called “sandwich” panels. Composite panels can be very effective as far as cost and insulation are concerned. However, depending on the filling in the sandwich and the combustible nature of the material incorporated, they can have significant fire implications.   Despite being highly flammable polystyrene, for example is still widely in use in the building industry even after a number of substantial fires involving such materials.  Whilst it is encased in the outer non combustible layers of the panel there is some perceived fire protection.  If the casing is breached, (or within an intense fire that overcomes the outer protection) then rapid fire spread can occur in the panels.

Click here to see a video of a block of flats in Paris which had polystyrene combustible cladding panels of a type widely used in the UK. The building was consumed by an extensive fire in less than three minutes.

The video illustrates the very real challenges and concerns for insurers resulting from the use of materials that are not approved or are inappropriate from a fire hazard perspective. The British construction industry uses building regulations as a guideline.  Part B of the building regulations deals with Fire Safety and although there is a requirement that both internal and external walls are fire resistant the regulations are aimed at protecting people, and their safe escape, rather than saving the actual property.

In recent years, the insurance industry has suffered some very significant fire losses as a result of the incorporation of composite panels with combustible elements, or where the building has timber framed method of construction.  As a result insurers are understandably cautious when asked to provide a quote for a building incorporating “sandwich panels” or other forms of combustible materials.  Their main focus is to determine the filling or core in the “sandwich” and whether it is a fire safety approved panel that does not contribute to a fire or result in rapid and uncontrollable spread of a fire throughout the building.  The Association of British Insurers (ABI) issues Technical Bulletins on sandwich systems and insurers also carry out their own research.  However new methods and construction types are being developed all the time and it is important for all interested parties to understand that such construction is material to the affordability and availability of buildings insurance.

When attending a fire at a building containing composite panels the fire brigade are concerned, principally and understandably, with saving those who may be trapped inside. Several fire brigade personnel have unfortunately lost their lives in recent years due to inhaling toxic smoke or being caught within intensive fires resulting in the sudden collapse of buildings.  Therefore, once they are satisfied that the building is clear they will do their best to douse the fire from the outside and reduce the risk of the fire spreading rather than entering the property to minimize damage to it.

If a building has passed through several ownerships since construction it is often difficult to determine the components used and this means that insurers have the difficult task of pricing and considering policy terms on limited information. This can lead to higher premiums being charged as underwriters have to assume worst case scenario and 100% loss of the property from fire damage.

Pii will always try to work with clients with the aim of gathering as much information as possible on a buildings construction methods to give insurers the comfort of knowing what they are dealing with and, hopefully, achieve a lower premium as a result.

If you have any queries on the above, please contact Gemma Worton [email protected].