Can engineered timber boost fire safety?

Queensland innovators are using engineered timber to design a fire station that doesn’t compromise safety. A timely development, as the Grenfell tower tragedy opens our eyes to the importance of using quality materials.

When you think about promoting fire safety, timber is probably the last material that springs to mind.
It is a combustible substance, after all – so it doesn’t make sense to incorporate it into the structure of a building (or so you might assume).
But innovators in Queensland are set to turn this notion on its head, by using engineered timber to overhaul the heritage Maryborough Fire and Emergency Service.
No doubt many people are scratching their heads over this plan – how can a product made from TREES have a better chance of withstanding fire than concrete and other materials?
But those familiar with the properties of timber know better – it is insulating and burns in a slow, predictable and measurable way – which means it can actually perform strongly against fire.
The University of Queensland’s Centre for Future Timber Structures is part of a strong team putting together a detailed design proposal for the new facility, after getting the green light from Queensland treasurer Curtis Pitt.
Various experts have already thrown their support behind the plan. Dr Christian Maluk, a lecturer of structural fire safety engineering at UQ, said mass timber construction could be just as good, if not better than concrete and steel, when it comes to reacting with fire.
“Design solutions including engineered timber products have demonstrated to be fire safe and viable,” Dr Maluk told The Fifth Estate.
“The market for timber buildings is expected to imminently grow following the fire safety engineering developments used for the design of timber structures.”
This is in line with international reports that show that various design solutions, such as fire-protected timber, can lead to buildings that are just as safe (or safer) than conventional structures. A particularly important consideration, in the wake of revelations that the Grenfell fire tragedy could have been prevented if non-combustible materials were used.
And if engineers and architects need any more convincing that timber is a worthy contender, there’s a strong environmental case to be made. Sustainably harvested timber is a renewable resource with a low carbon footprint, compared to materials like steel and concrete (which demand a high amount of energy during the production stage).
We’re curious to see how the revamping of the Maryborough Fire and Emergency Service pans out. Watch this space to see how the project develops and if similar ideas spring up in other parts of Australia.