Millfield Manor fire could expose a severe defect in thousands of Irish houses

Timber-frame construction is inherently flawed

Six houses in Newbridge, County Kildare, burned to ashes last Tuesday after a fire broke out in one of them.  Luckily, the fire happened at 4pm so that all the occupants were able to evacuate safely and even though the people lost everything they owned, they’re still alive. But it was only a matter of chance that nobody died. If the fire had broken out at four in the morning it’s likely that many people would have lost their lives and we would now be in a convulsion of recrimination on a par with 1981, when the Stardust fire took 48 lives.

After the Stardust disaster, the fire service was fundamentally restructured, and the Fire Services Act was passed into law, giving fire authorities draconian powers of inspection and prosecution — except in relation to private houses. The fire service was given no powers in that area.

Later, with the Building Control Act, 1990, local authorities were empowered to carry out random inspections of building sites, but were only given resources to inspect 12% to 15% of all developments. This was light-touch regulation, in tune with the wishes of developers, much like the later non-regulation of the financial institutions. Instead of local authorities having the people and the money to inspect every single building multiple times, a decision was made to place responsibility for compliance with the building regulations on the builders and designers, with predictable results.

Amid much talk of the bloated public service, here’s an interesting fact. Belfast city council has more building inspectors than the entire Republic of Ireland.

Timber-frame and other similar lightweight forms of construction, such as steel-frame housing, have an obvious advantage for builders. The various panels can be made in a factory, brought to the site and rapidly assembled into a weather-proof shell where workers can carry on with their jobs under shelter from the elements.

Except of course, the walls between the houses, which have to be non-combustible to comply with regulatory guidance. If you’re a developer, you don’t want to do that. You’d prefer if the entire building could be made in a factory. You don’t want to be paying block-layers good money to build solid concrete walls between the houses, just on the off-chance that the odd fire might break out, and you don’t want to be paying for the heavy foundations needed to support those walls.

What do you do? You lobby government, that’s what you do. The same Fianna Fáil government that gave you the light-touch regulation of the Building Control Act who duly oblige by changing the rules. Where the technical guidance documents used to insist that walls between houses must be non-combustible (in other words, concrete) it now suddenly, magically, becomes possible to have party walls of timber, sheeted with plasterboard on both sides and maybe with a sheet of fibreboard in the middle. A wooden fire-wall, in essence, with the added advantage that, should you have a delinquent neighbour, he can get into your house using only a bread-knife.

That’s not a joke. That’s a fact, and we saw the consequences in Newbridge last Tuesday when a fire in one house rapidly spread to five more, due to flaws in the construction of the party wall, and possibly due to the fact that nobody bothered to put in any cavity barriers.

What are cavity barriers? Well, you see, the house has an inner structure of timber, and then it has a skin of brick or block, literally a veneer to maintain the illusion of solidity. There’s a cavity between this brick skin and the timber frame, and if it’s not sealed at strategic locations, a fire can simply skip between one house and the next through this unprotected cavity.

There was no tradition of timber frame construction in Ireland before the boom, and most builders had no appreciation of the finer details such as cavity barriers, which were often simply omitted unless some vigilant local authority inspector or conscientious architect spotted their absence and forced the builder to fit them.

The same is true of the timber party wall. When you’re relying on plasterboard to save lives, it’s important to get the details right. The plasterboard is simply screwed to timbers and the screws have to be close enough to each other.  They also have to be applied properly, without breaking the paper skin of the plasterboard.

That’s right. Paper.

There are other details that must be constructed properly but let’s leave it at that for the moment. If you live in a timber-framed house, and if that house happens to be semi-detached or terraced, you are relying for your safety on a wooden frame with plasterboard on both sides to protect you from a catastrophic fire in your neighbour’s home.

As we saw in the Newbridge incident, none of that worked out too well, and the implications are horrifying.

Tens of thousands of such houses were built all over Ireland during the boom and while the Millfield Manor residents were lucky enough to be awake when their homes caught fire, it’s only a matter of time before a major disaster happens.

That disaster will be a consequence of weak government, underfunding of enforcement and political cronyism. It will be on the heads of politicians and certain weak-willed officials in the Department of the Environment who slavishly obeyed the diktat of their political masters and changed the rules to permit this inherently flawed method of construction.

There’s another national scandal brewing.


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36 thoughts on “Millfield Manor fire could expose a severe defect in thousands of Irish houses

  1. Great post Bock. It would be interesting to know if this development was inspected by Kildare County Council’s people during the course of construction, and also interesting to see the certificates of compliance issued by architects for mortgage companies. Clearly now, the rest of that development needs to be checked.
    Despite what you say, should the fire brigade not have been able to get there in time to prevent the loss of the whole block of houses? I’m presuming there is a fire station in Newbridge.
    Let the litigation begin…

  2. The main fire station is in Newbridge. It took them about six minutes to arrive as far as I know. The next nearest station is Naas, which is seven miles away. Don’t forget, these are retained firefighters, on-call, so there’s a delay of two or three minutes before they get to the station, and another eight or nine minutes to reach Newbridge.

    I’m sure there will be an inquiry into exactly how the fire was tackled, but it did seem a bit odd to see them washing the roof in one video.

  3. Bock – notwithstanding your comments on fire walls and fire seals, timber frame and steel frame are a far better type of construction than block or brick.

    I know that’s not really your point above but the negative comments about light weight construction is misguided.

  4. The bread knife comment.

    A common line from the concrete industry when trying to scare people from buying or legislating for timber frame.

  5. The minimum time for fire to spread from one house to the next should be 60 minutes
    so even if the middle house goes on fire with treated timber it should have taken over an hour to spread.
    Orkestral the problem with timber frame and steel was most people putting them up received no special training or information regarding fire prevention or that the frame was the main structure.
    Most carpenters were used to fixing to the main structure rather than constructing it.
    lack of understanding of the frame total integrity, could be just as big a problem in the future.

  6. Also your remarks about obvious advantages to builders without stating the obvious advantages to homeowners. It gives the impression that the advantage only lies with the builder.

    I’d be interested to hear why you think they would wash the roof. I don’t know what that means. Why would some one do that to a terrace house fire.

  7. Orkestra l — Why would one wash the roof? One wouldn’t. That was why I wondered about the firefighting tactics adopted.

    I can think of no obvious advantage to a homeowner of having a timber party wall instead of a block one, apart from certain acoustic considerations that can be overcome.

    de Fan — The 60-minute fire resistance relates to a furnace test, not a real-life fire.

  8. Oh sure. Four sheets of 3/4 gypsum plasterboard, no bother. Not a bread knife though. A jigsaw, absolutely.

    But how about your windows and doors? Not much of a problem to get through either. You knacker of a neighbour is going to find a way

    The security issue is easily solved, and I had thought that it was addressed in Ireland within the TGD’s but I don’t know because I left before it came in. I can’t say for sure but there was talk of cement or composite backing boards. Not a big deal to install and resistant to power tools.

    Still, I don’t think that you were very balanced above. Some problems you highlighted carry over to cavity block construction.

    You won’t overcome acoustic issues in a home build once you have a concrete or block wall. You’re going to hear your neighbour very clearly.

    De fan- in my experience, you can train them all you want, they rarely give a shit if they fuck it up. Inspections and fines are the only solution.

  9. Until the Irish construction industry comes to terms with its failings, if it comes down to a straight choice between being burnt to death and hearing my neighbours shagging, I’ll put up with the shagging. Ear-plugs are cheaper than coffins.

  10. I’ve been involved in looking at some of these for prospective purchasers in the last few years and I refused to sign off the last three dwellings that used timber frame construction. Problems in all three cases with timber party walls between dwellings. All because of an obvious lack of knowledge how they should be built. All highly dangerous and in all cases I insisted that remedial works be completed before the sales be completed. In all cases the sales fell through.

    There’s a lethal tragedy waiting to happen. And there are many many people complicit in sweeping it under the carpet.

  11. The Geek,

    Is it the case that timber frame construction was used for the “cheapest” estates?

    If that is the case, does that mean the people who will find themselves unable to sell their houses are those who are already in deep negative equity?

    If that is so, does this mean that poorer people will again bear the cost of profiteering by a small group of the rich?

  12. Not to mention the Fire Services Act. The fire may spread house to house but the liability for the damage caused does not.

  13. Very good article Bock summarises the problem very well. What’s scary is none of the responsible parties developers, government, local authorities, standard bodies etc. are taking full responsibility for their part in all of this and proactively dealing with the problems. Most of the timber frame construction involves high density developments for which it is generally inappropriate (vested timber frame interests will claim otherwise). If fire takes hold these structures burn very quickly without proper fire protection. In many cases the basic design which usually requires an Agrement Cert as an innovative building system is not even designed in accordance with regulations. These systems often do not use the appropriate collection of materials in accordance with their intended purpose or as specified and tested by their manufacturers. So the design does not fully comply with mandatory building and fire safety regulations to begin with, but is certified by the relevant standards authorities nonetheless. Add to this builders with lack of expertise in this type of construction who can’t even follow the flawed design when erecting the structure and fail to put in the inadequate fire stops. So double or triple whammy. Plus certifiers indicating substantial compliance (whatever that means surely it complies or doesn’t) without ever inspecting or being able to inspect the properties properly. If its a new build the legal profession reverts to type and will look to put the purchaser back in the same position as they expected to be in when they purchased. While caveat emptor does not apply with new builds what they fail to grasp is that in order to create separate entity and 60 minute burn time, every connected and flawed dwelling needs to have the same remedial works completed to make them all complaint, its usually not sufficient to fix just one. Plus many of the problems are buried within the enclosed envelope of the finished structure so hard to see even if you were to enlist the services of a surveyor. Where the designs are flawed the problems are repeated throughout most of these types of developments. There are a huge number of properties like this with inadequate fire protection all over the country which do not meet mandatory fire safety standards. There have been a number of fires in recent years in timber frame developments already. Amazingly nobody has been seriously injured. In Terenure an older build but fire spread through a terrace of houses at roof level, In Airfield, Swords a fire started by a handy man fixing a timber frame balcony with a blow torch, which spread up into the roof space & through the terrace of dwellings and most recently & catastrophically Millfield in Kildare, There are also other large timber frame developments such as Belmayne where some problems have been admitted to but to date the full extent of problems have yet to be uncovered, Responsible parties including the government allowed this to happen and they are trying to quietly brush it under the carpet, too big & hot (excuse the pun) to handle. Remarkably it also now appears, under pressure from developers, government is considering rolling back recent regulation improvements designed to prevent some or all of this from perpetuating.

  14. Judge&jury – you have stated above the timber frame is generally unsuitable for high density developments.

    Would really love to hear how you reached that conclusion. It is the opposite of the accepted practices of the construction industry across the developed world.

    Also curious as to why, immediately following that, you claim that only people with vested interests believe otherwise and then reference a vested interest in support of your argument.

    Bock, are the odds of you burning to death and the odds of your neighbour getting the leg over about the same?

  15. @ Bock brain dump apologies for missing paragraphs.

    @ Orkestral accepted practices are core to the problems. Not sure which vested interest is cited for support.

  16. Can you explain the core problem in any kind of detail please.

    You referenced the Irish Concrete Federation. Do they not have a vested interest?

  17. Orkestral —

    “Can you explain the core problem in any kind of detail please.”

    It’s not clear to me what you meant to ask there. Could you please clarify?

  18. The comment was in response to judge&skirt. Lets try again.

    Judge&jury – ” accepted practices are core to the problems”, can you please explain the fault with the accepted practices of the construction industries across the developed world. For clarity, we are referring to the use of TFC (timber frame construction) in high density developments. You have stated that it is unsuitable.

  19. Let’s not get into a tennis match argument about it.

    In my opinion, the party wall should default to a safe condition no matter how poor the workmanship, and that’s far more likely with masonry that with timber framed construction..

    Likewise, timber-frame construction involving terraced or semi-detached units is inherently vulnerable to badly-executed details.

  20. Orkestral, you seem to be fighting the corner of the timber frame industry – are you involved in that industry?

    Many issues arise in relation to careful fire sealing in a property where timber construction is used, even in locations where it has been used for centuries, like First floors and Attic spaces – if the detailing is inadequate, problems are likely to arise.

    Bock, thank you for an interesting article – it would be useful to cite where the change in the regulations occurred that allowed non-block party walling that used combustible elements for its framing (timber studs, apparently)

    I take your point about the knife, and note that possible claims based on this matter – the robustness of the party wall “solution” – may arise in matters of the building contract – did the contract specify a “wall” and if not, what did it say?

  21. Michael, I don’t believe the regulations were amended. It was the Technical Guidance Documents that changed.

  22. Please see this page in relation to a fire in terraced dwellings that was apparently built WITH brickwork or blockwork party walls per the previous building regulation requirement.

    The author makes several comments in the article and also gives a pointed response to a more recent inquiry which may be relevant to the subject under discussion.

  23. Orkestral — The consequences of one are far more severe than the other. For me, at least.

    Tim — Certainly

  24. Hi Michael O’Neill- Thanks for that…

    Yes the homeowners in Riverwalk Court have been fighting a number of different issues over the past few years including major structural defects, water ingress damages AND serious fire issues – no fire stopping/proofing over party walls/ floors/ cavities – a litany of issues and years of stress – we have watched in both horror and sympathy as the events unfolded in Millfield Manor and our hearts are with those who have lost so much – we support you all at this awful time and thank God that there were no fatalities. We watched in horror as it became clear that this was also a timber framed building with alleged similar fire issues as we are experiencing in Riverwalk Court.

  25. You’re very welcome Patrice.

    I asked a question on the Facebook page about who offered Opinions on Compliance and who undertook Inspections art Riverwalk Court.

    What’s the story.

  26. Patrice,

    That question was directed at you:

    “who offered Opinions on Compliance and who undertook Inspections art Riverwalk Court”

    I have a professional interest in the matter.

  27. As with all self certification builds, the certs of compliance come from the Architect and form part of the purchase pack. Inspections – what inspections? Certs at that time issued off plans.

  28. Thanks Patrice.

    What I want to know is –

    Did you receive signed certs of compliance in the purchase pack?
    If so, did you receive these prior to the apartment being completed?
    If so, why did you accept them, since they were issued prematurely?

    This is not a trick question, I am trying to see the overall picture faced by the Purchaser.

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