More criticism of Glasgow School of Art insulation

More criticism of Glasgow School of Art insulation

A FIRE safety expert has criticised the refurbishment’s use of flammable insulation after the heritage building burned down for a second time.

The listed building recently caught fire after a previous blaze in 2014. Sprinklers ‘had not been fitted’ after the first fire at the Mackintosh Library in the building, which was ‘almost entirely destroyed by fire’ in May 2014.  A spokesperson for the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) stated at first that ‘it was understood’ that automatic sprinklers had not been fully fitted due to the building undergoing refurbishment’.

Later, a report found that flammable insulation panels that ‘also give off toxic gases when set alight’ were used in the refurbishment, ‘rather than more expensive mineral ones which do not burn’. Fire inspectors are still investigating ‘whether these’ materials used ‘exacerbated the spread’, but described the insulation panels as ‘similar to those used’ on Grenfell Tower.

It claims that 100mm polyisocyanurate (PIR) insulation was used in a studio above the original library, describing it as ‘flammable’ but between two sheets of aluminium foil ‘designed to stop it catching fire’. In turn, the roof underlay was ‘also flammable’, with there being ‘no suggestion’ that the materials ‘breached any building regulations or British Standards’. 

Herald Scotland asked whether PIR was specified ‘because it is cheaper than the mineral equivalents’, but received no response. It had been confirmed in the RIBA Journal earlier this year, by Page/Park, that PIR was installed, and that flammable paint pigments and oil washes used ‘may have also helped spread’ the fire. A spokesman for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service responded that the investigation into the cause of the fire was ‘still ongoing’.

PBC Today interviewed a fire safety expert, who criticised the decision to use the insulation in the restoration led by Park/Page and contractor Kier. School director Tom Inns had commented that Kier’s assurances of an ‘adequate’ fire safety strategy being in place had been ‘professionally checked’, but Geoff Wilkinson, managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants, said that while PIR complies with building regulations, it is ‘particularly concerning’ that an alternative ‘wasn’t specified’.

He added: ‘The likely driver would have been to improve the thermal performance of the building, which is a laudable aim, and, per millimetre of thickness, PIR is one of the best performing insulation products. However, it wouldn’t have been a dramatic reduction in performance to have used a non-combustible product or a product that at least had more limited flame propagation properties.

‘Given all of that, you would have expected a fully responsible design team, considering the past history, to have specified a different product – even though PIR meets the minimum standard of the Building Regulations.’

Mr Wilkinson added that under the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 2015, there is a ‘wider remit’ to minimise known risks to acceptable levels, and ‘regardless of whether the insulation complied with Building Regs or not, when you know there’s a particular risk or a past history with the building, all of that should be factored in as part of the CDM risk assessment – and that should be carried out for literally every material and piece of work that you do.

‘So rather than the focus being on the Building Regs, it should have been down the fire risk assessment and the CDM assessment to ensure that you minimise the fire risk within that building’. A spokesperson for the Glasgow School of Art said: ‘The GSA’s restoration plans went through Glasgow City Council’s thorough planning and historic building permission process, and were authorised through the issue of a Building Warrant.

‘The Mackintosh Building was being restored using a combination of historic materials and craftsmanship. Any contemporary materials used in the restoration not only complied fully with the appropriate British and European Standard Institution specifications, but were also aligned with guidelines from specialist agencies such as Historic Environment Scotland and Historic England.’