Building a greener future for all with fire safe timber

Construction was put on the back burner in 2022, faced with compounding challenges like rising energy prices and supply chain issues, writes Ian King, COO, Zeroignition.

As the conflict in Ukraine rages on and warnings from COP27 still echo across the globe, sustainability has become a high profile subject matter in construction once again. The industry is being challenged to adapt quickly and seek ways to, cost-effectively, reduce emissions and keep net-zero goals in sight.

Building is expensive in today’s climate, and to make matters worse, the UK built environment produces around a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions. This must be slashed if we are to stand a chance at meeting any carbon reduction climate goals.

Construction professionals can reduce the industry’s carbon emissions and project costs by carefully considering what building materials are used during the construction process. To put things into perspective, cement production alone accounts for around 8% of all global carbon emissions, according to a Chatham House Report. Replacing energy-intensive materials like concrete and steel with timber, a more sustainable (with its low embodied carbon) and potentially less expensive alternative, is a leap in the right direction.

To support timber’s resurgence, we must keep fire safety in mind to ensure timber building materials are protected as effectively as possible. It’s a tricky subject, as some timber products will take a long time to burn while others are more vulnerable. For example, a large oak beam is generally as structurally safe as a similar-sized piece of steel when exposed to fire. Both materials will however eventually buckle under extreme temperatures.

Regardless, including fire retardants in a protection regime is essential to slow the charring rate of timber building materials as much as possible. Fortunately, we can chemically treat timber with non-toxic fire retardants to ensure they’re slow-burning or self-extinguishing when exposed to an open flame.


Thanks to advances in engineering knowledge and construction technology, we are learning to build higher and more flexibly using wood. Versatile timber products like CLT have become more popular and as modern building methods such as offsite manufacturing become more widespread, timber, which lends itself well to prefabrication, could become an increasingly popular choice for many designs.

There’s no doubt about it, timber has become a credible alternative to increasingly expensive, highly polluting building materials like steel and concrete. However, we must not lose sight of the need to develop a deeper understanding of timber building materials and how they are protected to ensure safety in these structures remains a top priority. 

In order to do this, it also helps to consider the bigger picture and view fire protection methods, like fire retardants, as parts of a wider protection system. Combining fire retardants with other fire protection methods, such as sprinklers for example, can significantly increase a structure’s protection against fire. The interplay between different protection methods is important here. Regardless of how well fire protection solutions perform individually, if one fails, a cascading effect can compromise an entire system, emphasising the need for a solid understanding of how to apply multiple fire safety strategies into a system.

Regular Inspection

A robust fire safety system considers the whole structure when selecting each component. The system should also be inspected on a regular and thorough basis. Fire retardants are an essential part in any fire protection regime because they provide dependable passive fire protection that slows the spread of fire; however, they need to be incorporated into an efficient wider system. If used in conjunction with a mix of other fire protection methods, such as sprinklers and fire doors, fire retardants will significantly improve a building’s protection against fire, ensuring the safety of occupants and saving lives.

Timber is providing refreshing solutions to environmental issues in construction, and thanks to modern building techniques and an evolving timber product market, there’s no doubt it’s adoption will grow in years to come.

If timber’s adoption continues with safety in mind, building with wood could be a welcome shift in contemporary construction methods that will simultaneously work towards reducing buildings’ embodied carbon. Moving forward, we must unearth ways to support a struggling sector faced with a looming recession, and continue moving towards net-zero emission targets. As timber and other wood products like wood-based panels continue to gain prominence in modern construction, it is critical professionals across the sector retain an emphasis on fire safety to protect lives and build on progress towards a greener future for the sector.