Why risk managers are taking up the cudgels for sustainable timber construction, and how the insurance market can be brought on board.

Although wood has been used as a building material for a very long time, the great construction success has only occurred internationally in recent decades. This has also put the insurance market on the map. But insurers have been slow to embrace the new developments.

In the absence of empirical values or broadly based studies, reservations were voiced at the beginning against the new timber construction era. On one hand, because of a supposedly increased fire risk or insufficient experience with the behavior of the building material in case of fire. On the other hand, because of the possibility of serial damage in the serial production of components, which could have massive consequences in the construction and assembly insurance, as well as in the liability insurance. Finally, design activity was also a concern for insurers.

In the meantime, empirical values are available. It has been shown that a differentiated approach to risk assessment is required in industrial timber construction. Glulam, for example, as used in the Milwaukee tower, achieves a fire resistance of 120 minutes and more. In addition, this wood has a higher stability in case of fire than steel. The outer layers do not burn but char, forming a protective layer so that the load-bearing wood core remains intact.

With regard to the residential tower in Milwaukee, specific tests were carried out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Laboratory. The results were positive, so that the authorities and public fire protection officers, who have the welfare and safety of the residents and fire departments in mind, also confirmed the feasibility.

Hard market for the construction industry

The occurrence of fire damage on construction sites is a significant risk. This damage is mainly caused by improper hot work but occurs to a much lesser extent during the construction of a wooden building. The construction industry is countering with appropriate processes to take precautions in organizational fire protection. Likewise, various interest groups have published guidelines that continue to sharpen conscious handling. In fact, there are no indications or statistics to prove that, despite the growing share of timber construction in the total insured construction risks, there has been a disproportionate increase in losses.

However, the construction industry is not spared from the hardening of the insurance market. The extent of the rising premium costs and the shortage of capacities sometimes lead to a massive impact on the profitability of individual project contracts or even entire companies. Even more so than for construction and erection insurance, this applies to the area of planning liability. Poor technical results of insurers, especially due to major claims, are negative for risk appetite. The consequences: a high need for information in the risk assessment phase, rising premium costs or deductibles, and coverage restrictions in insurance protection (for example, for fire damage in facade construction). A prominent example: the major fire at London’s Grenfell Tower in June 2017, where the facade construction, which, however, was built of conventional materials without wood, created a chimney effect and cost the lives of more than 70 people.

Magic word „risk transparency“

As the investigation results at the Ascent Tower project show, it is important to differentiate. Individual cases that are not related to wood as a building material must not lead to erroneous conclusions.

Also, in negotiations with the coverage market, it is essential to make the characteristics of the building materials transparent and to work out the sensitive points for the risk assessment. GrECo supports clients in placing corporate and project insurance policies on the national and international insurance market. A major focus is on the joint development of risk transparency; an aspect that is also served by the general education provided by organizations such as the “Structural Timber Association” or the “UK Timber Frame Association”. These educational activities are relevant for the London insurance hub and can positively influence risk appetite or lead to more open discussions with insurers.

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Krammer Richard, GrECo Group Practice Leader Construction & Real Estate

Richard Krammer

Group Practice Leader Construction & Real Estate

T +43 5 04 04 119