Reading the anti-timber frame tirade by Jeff Howell in the Sunday Telegraph – ‘the builder who gives it to you straight’ – the initial reaction is ‘what is he on’? His attacks border on the personal and you begin to suspect he was locked in a timber frame house as a child and never quite got over it.

On closer investigation, among the things Mr Howell does not seem to be on are facts and figures. The core of his latest lashing out is that timber frame is inherently a fire risk and he points to the recent blaze at the Yarl’s Wood immigration centre in Bedfordshire as proof. He fails to mention that modern timber treatments and construction methods make timber components slow to ignite and burn, or that the BRE and TRADA Timberframe 2000 multi-storey building project passed fire safety tests with flying colours.

Nor does Mr Howell say that the fire brigade identified timber frame as a factor in the Yarl’s Wood blaze. That’s because it has not. A spokesperson for the Bedfordshire fire service told TTJ that initial investigations suggest the open plan design and the fact that it was started in several places may have contributed to the severity of the blaze. The ‘finger had not been pointed’ at timber frame per se and she added that, when a fire reaches a certain intensity, no kind of building is secure – witness the fate of the steel and concrete World Trade Centre.

The Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association says that the real nub of the issue was the fact that Yarl’s Wood had no sprinkler system. In fact it is using the fire in its campaign for a change in the law so they’re made compulsory. ‘We’re convinced that, if Yarl’s Wood had installed sprinklers, a large part of the building could have been saved,’ said CACFOA spokesperson John Fyall.

So it looks as though Mr Howell might have picked the right fire to highlight a construction issue. Trouble is, he picked the wrong target.