Our construction team trainee solicitor, Connor McNicholl and construction team head, Lorna Carter report on the Glasgow School of Art fire and reflect on lessons to be learnt by this education establishment and more widely by those contemplating development or carrying out risk assessments:
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) have failed to identify in their report published on Tuesday 25 January 2022 a cause for a fire that gutted the Glasgow School of Art’s (GSA) Mackintosh building in 2018. The report, consisting of over 172 weeks of excavation and examination of hundreds of tonnes of debris, witness testimonies, and CCTV and photographic footage, comes four years after a fire damaged the Grade-A listed building so severely the cause can never be known conclusively. The fire came as it neared the end of a £35m restoration project following an earlier blaze in May 2014.
Initial 2014 Fire and failures to take measures to prevent further fires
An investigation into the initial fire of 2014 concluded the origin to have been the ignition of flammable gases from a foam canister used in a student project after coming into contact with a hot projector. However, a report published in November 2014 listed a litany of fire safety hazards which exacerbated the ignition, allowing it to turn into a blaze. Similar themes were present in the 2022 report, specific hazards highlighted were the use of flammable insulation, of a similar type used in Grenfell Tower, flammable roof underlay and fire alarms which failed to function leaving passers-by to notify the fire brigades when the fire was already well underway.
Holyrood’s culture committee found it particularly damning that adequate safety measures were not in place, chief amongst these concerns was the failure to install a “mist suppression system” during the £35m restoration following the first fire. Such a system was highlighted by Historic Environment Scotland as a safety measure that would have preserved the delicate nature and historic integrity of the building once activated.
A Look Forward
Following Holyrood’s scathing criticism of the GSA for failures in fire safety and insufficient priority to safeguarding the building; several senior former members of staff at the GSA have provided accounts of the incompetence and deficiencies of management. Eileen Reid, former head of widening participation at the GSA, stated that it was a running joke on “how many minutes we would have to get out” once a fire started.
A strategic outline business case, part of the “Mackintosh Project”, commissioned by the GSA sought input from the local community, heritage sector, Glasgow City Council, the Scottish government and GSA alumni, students, and staff. The project concluded that the fire-ravaged Mackintosh building should be “faithfully” restored… a mist suppression system and working fire alarms also seem somewhat crucial.
Lessons to be Learnt
For those considering development or carrying out risk assessments, especially in higher-risk buildings; those multifaceted and or larger in scope projects, time will need to be allotted to the various preparatory actions required to suitably cover off risk. These may include:
Instructing a Fire Engineer
Specialists in the spread and control of fire, instructing a fire engineer to assess any development project to anticipate the behaviour of materials, structures, machines, and processes as related to the protection of life, property and the environment from fire is advised. Once advice is provided, it should be followed and factored into development plans.
Professional Indemnity Insurance
Any engineer carrying out work on a development project should have adequate professional indemnity insurance (PI) to cover the risk of their negligence which causes financial loss. The extent of PI cover varies from consultant to consultant, which is why it is imperative any developer ensures any engineer they wish to instruct has obtained PI and checks for any exclusions or limitations in cover which are becoming increasingly common following Grenfell.
Ensure works are properly scoped by a RICS chartered building surveyor
Development plans should ideally involve the input of RICS chartered building surveyor(s). Surveyors offer a wide range of services, such as scoping the necessary/desired works, project managing the design and management of buildings and carrying out due diligence on the progress of the works.
Contracts in place
Before ground can be broken on a project, works should be properly procured through a suitable form of building contract, likely to include subcontractor collateral warranties or third party rights for specialist works such as fire safety, air conditioning, mechanical and electrical, thereby securing a direct contractual link between the developers and subcontractors.
If you would like any guidance on how to cover off risk associated with construction developments, would like assistance drafting building contracts and related documents or would like us to review any contracts you currently have in place, please do not hesitate to get in touch.