The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) issued a ‘trenchant’ response to evidence heard at the Scottish government inquiry into last year’s fire.
The listed building caught fire in 2018 after a previous blaze in 2014. Sprinklers ‘had not been fitted’ after the first fire at the Mackintosh Library, which was ‘almost entirely destroyed by fire’ in May 2014. A spokesperson for the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) stated at first that ‘it was understood’ that automatic sprinklers had not been fully fitted due to the building undergoing refurbishment’.
Later, a report found that flammable insulation panels were used in the refurbishment, and fire inspectors are still investigating ‘whether these’ materials used ‘exacerbated the spread’, but described the insulation panels as ‘similar to those used’ on Grenfell Tower. In September, a fire safety expert criticised the use of flammable insulation, and earlier this month an architect claimed that the fire was due to ‘seriously flawed’ fire safety planning on site.
Last November, the GSA defended its management, specifically responding that no link ‘could be made’ between this and the two fires. More recently, building company Kier refused to release a key report unless it was redacted, meaning Scottish politicians in charge of the inquiry had to reject its submission. Earlier this month, the investigation was told that the fire protection system was ‘ineffective’ at the time of the fire.
Herald Scotland reported on the GSA’s ‘trenchant’ response to the most recent evidence, aiming to ‘address further rumours, supposition and speculation’. The evidence had come from fire safety expert and consultant Stephen Mackenzie, who told the committee he was ‘puzzled’ that a mist suppression system had been removed after the 2014 fire.
The GSA responded: ‘In light of other evidence received by the Committee, the GSA considers it is important that the Committee understands that the pre-2014 fire mist suppression system was not fully installed. This system suffered widespread damage in the fire and was in need of substantial repair before it could be operational.’
Pumps were on site but not installed, and suffered ‘extensive water damage’, with most of the pipework in the western part of the building destroyed, while the remainder post 2014 was contaminated by smoke, and the GSA stated that ‘it is therefore not the case that there was a 95% complete mist suppression system following the 2014 fire’.
It also noted that ‘following expert inspection and advice, the GSA therefore decided to take advantage of advances in technology since the original system was installed by including an up to date system as part of the Mackintosh Restoration Project. Further suggestions were also made during the Committee meeting that a temporary system could have been put in place.
‘To the best of the GSA’s knowledge, having sought expert advice, there is no temporary fire suppression system suitable for a building and project of the scale and complexity of the Mackintosh Building and the Mackintosh Restoration Project that could have been installed during the construction period.
‘It is considered that the extent of restoration works could not have been carried out with a live fire suppression system being present as it would need to have the coverage, certification and equipment equivalent to that of a permanent system. The significantly higher risk of accidental flooding/water damage is also likely to be too great for an insurer to accept’.
The GSA also noted: ‘These are all reasons why it is highly unusual to have an operational fire suppression system present during construction works of this scale and complexity, as the Committee has heard from various sources. The GSA is not aware of any example of a system that has been used that would have been relevant to the Mackintosh Restoration Project.’
It took issue with Mr Mackenzie’s comment that he did not ‘even see the appointment of a specialist fire engineer’ between the fires, stating that ‘as explained to the Committee on 15 November 2018, the GSA appointed Atelier Ten as a specialist fire engineer following the 2014 fire’, with his role continuing up to the time of the 2018 fire.
Compartmentation meanwhile ‘had already been introduced where practical into the building prior to the 2014 fire. Further, the Mackintosh Building already met acceptable standards in relation to fire safety prior to the 2014 fire, but the GSA proactively decided to add an additional layer of protection, beyond that which is present in most historic buildings across the UK. In light of the professional advice received by the GSA, and other relevant factors, it is satisfied that the decision to pursue the water mist suppression system was the correct one’.
Additional measures implemented between 2014 and 2018 included fire doors, 24 hour security and an automatic fire detection system, and the GSA added that ‘any suggestion that the Mackintosh Building was ‘unprotected’ during the Mackintosh Restoration Project is therefore not borne out by the evidence’.
It also ‘strongly’ questioned a ‘contention’ by Mr Mackenzie that discovering asbestos was ‘not a credible reason’ for delaying the installation of the mist system, adding: ‘As Mr Mackenzie will no doubt be aware, asbestos plans, surveys and registers will often not be able to identify or anticipate all asbestos in a building, particularly for a historic building such as the Mackintosh Building.’