Student housing fire highlights true cost of fire

It started with a discarded cigarette thrown onto a landing. Yet the devastating fire which tore through the CUBE building in Bolton, which the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said was a “near miss”, could not be ignored. The fire brought into sharp focus the destructive impact of fire, challenges with regulatory guidance, the hidden costs of such incidents and begs the question how can its impact be averted?

On Friday 15th November 2019, 200 firefighters and 40 fire engines were called to tackle the blaze at the six-storey accommodation, housing students at Bolton University. Thankfully, all 217 students were able to escape safely without any casualties but once again the disruption and knock-on affects were undeniable, with the financial loss falling on both the university and the public purse. Fires such as this are the cause of significant economic, environmental and community costs, which can ultimately borne by the taxpayer. The vice-chancellor of the university estimated spending between £1-1.25 million on the immediate response to the fire to rehouse students evacuated from the building, replace needed lost possessions in the fire and it is reported that this cost has been met by government. Furthermore, the vice-chancellor believes that the fire damage costs will be met by insurers..

Fires such as this highlight the rationale for greater consideration of property protection alongside life safety as a reasonable outcome. An expectation of property protection alongside life safety would result in more buildings being designed to be resilient to disproportionate damage, using combinations of passive and active fire safety measures. The BSA believes that sprinkler systems would be a major part of this change and believes they should be considered more readily as a viable option right across the built environment whether it is student housing, a block of flats, a hospital, school, retail or leisure facility or commercial and industrial building.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester was right to highlight the need to reflect on this event. Comments from those involved in the development of this building highlighting compliance with Building Regulations would puzzle many given the outcome. However, this mismatch between expectation and outcome delivered by Building Regulation is not uncommon. Many building owners believe that if they build to regulation they are creating a resilient building – this is not the case, they are simply creating a compliant building where the requirement is for life safety, not property protection. According to research carried out by YouGov for the Business Sprinkler Alliance, nearly seven out of 10(69%) businesses are unaware that current building regulations in the UK do not adequately prevent and protect against the devastating effects of fire.

The blaze at the CUBE student residence is another stark reminder of the wider impact of fire. We shouldn’t be looking at a large property such as this being devastated by fire and think the building was a success. The inclusion of a sprinkler system can prevent major financial and property losses, containing what could be a potential major disaster and ensuring it is only a minor inconvenience. Proven time and again with consistent reliability, it is a small price to pay to prevent a property or business owner’s hard earned success from going up in flames. Building owners need to ask the question: “what’s the outcome I want to receive with my property when it’s faced with fire?”