The old one about journalists not letting facts stand in the way of a good story came to mind reading Building’s latest report on timber frame construction. OK, before my collar gets felt by the heavy hand of a libel lawyer, I’d better stress that the magazine hasn’t so much played fast and loose with the facts, as let its reading of statistics be shaped by a seeming conviction that timber-frame building in the UK is not sufficiently fire safe.

Its article – headlined “The fire alarm is ringing” – focused on findings on timber frame performance in the latest Fire Safety Monitor from the Department of Communities & Local Government. The one it really sank its teeth into was that, when a blaze breaks out in a building, a greater area is affected if it’s timber framed; with 47% suffering over 50m² of damage, compared with 32% in buildings in other materials. On closer scrutiny, however, these figures aren’t as open to the simple interpretation “timber frame burns better” as they might seem. There’s no analysis of the type or size of building involved, or the reasons why fire spreads further in some than others.

The Fire Statistics Monitor also lacks a figure for the number of timber-based buildings in the UK relative to other types and so provides no way of assessing whether they are any more prone to fire. And it makes no reference to timber buildings’ fire performance in countries where they’re far more prevalent.

Also absent is any definition of what kind of timber-based building we’re talking about, and modern timber construction now covers a multitude of different approaches.

Fires on UK timber frame construction sites have been acknowledged as an issue recently by the sector. But the evidence points to this being due to the relative inexperience of UK building contractors

in working with wood rather than any inherent problems with timber frame, hence the UK Timber Frame Association’s launch of its Site Safe guidelines.

The UK timber building industry does face one serious fire safety problem at the moment, however, and that’s the fear being whipped up about it by a masonry sector bent on defending its market share and flame-fanning media coverage.