How to minimise the risk of balcony fires

  • Balconies provide an invaluable outdoor space but also bring their own set of risks
  • Recent fires in private rental and social housing properties have demonstrated the potential hazards
  • Paul Redington, Regional Property Major Loss Manager at Zurich Insurance, and Allison Whittington Head of Housing at Zurich Municipal, explain more

Balconies provide an invaluable outdoor space and an ideal place for socialising for many flat owners and occupiers. However, they also bring risks associated with discarded cigarettes and the use of barbecues and heaters. Such risks mean that property owners and registered housing providers should consider reminding tenants of the wide variety of perils they could be exposing themselves to.

With the current Coronavirus outbreak rendering people housebound and the forecasted rising temperatures as we move into Spring, it is important that people still exercise caution when it comes to having that first barbecue of the year. In addition to the risks explained below, the public have already been urged not to put extra pressure on the emergency services at a time when resource is being stretched.

Key Risks

Paul Redington – Regional Property Major Loss Manager at Zurich Insurance

Recent fires in private rental and social housing properties have demonstrated the potential hazards of the likes of carelessly discarded smoking materials setting fire to items on the ground, or to balconies below. Falling embers from barbeques represent a similar hazard.

Our claims experience shows that barbecues should never be used on balconies under any circumstances. This includes all types, all fuels and all sizes of barbecue – including those that are inappropriately being marketed for such use.

The risks are compounded by the fact that barbeques are often left unattended, and that wind speeds are stronger at a greater height. Wind patterns can be less predictable due to the proximity of neighbouring buildings. The confined layout of balconies can also affect ease of escape for building occupants.

Any risk is greatly heightened where balconies and facades are constructed with combustible materials and insulation. The Government issued a guidance note for owners of residential buildings which, in short, advises that ‘the removal and replacement of any combustible material used in balcony construction is the clearest way to prevent external fire spread from balconies’.

The guidance note states that ‘Where there is doubt over the materials used, or risk presented, building owners should seek professional advice from an appropriately qualified and competent professional (i.e. a fire engineer or construction professional with significant knowledge and experience of fire safety)’.

Unfortunately 2019 saw a number of significant claims that originated on balconies. The Zurich Property Major Loss Team has found that in each case it has seen, the presence of timber was either the reason for ignition, or facilitated fire spread. These include balconies made of non-combustible materials, like metal, but otherwise decked with wood. In addition, properties built of brick and block, but where the outer face of walls have been clad with timber for aesthetic/design purposes. In the absence of these features most of these fires would have been far less significant, or simply would not have occurred in the first place.


Modern Methods of Construction

Allison Whittington – Head of Housing at Zurich Municipal

The risks associated with the use of combustible cladding and building materials, as well as the use of timber for construction and façade of balconies and wider parts of the building, which are very common modern construction techniques, can be crucial factors and allow fire to spread quickly through a property.

Timber-framed structures are susceptible to a variety of ignition sources, including radiation from other fires. At Zurich, our experience has shown that when a timber-framed building ignites (for whatever reason), it can result in more serious and more widespread damage.

Therefore, fire resistance must be considered when using modern construction methods. This includes weighing up the combined properties of materials, with a need for joined-up thinking throughout design, build and maintenance, to ensure risks are recognised and addressed appropriately – not just in construction but also the inhabitation phase of a building’s lifecycle.

The solution to this problem is yet to be addressed. To ensure tenants’ safety, perhaps there should be some form of obligation upon landlords or managing agents to inform and advise residents about their property type and not just about the fire muster points. Zurich, together with the Association of British Insurers, have recently called for a publically accessible register of construction types and materials used. The debate will undoubtedly continue.