What caused the Glasgow School of Art fire? Here’s what we know

The fire on Friday night. Image: Getty.

For the second time in four years, the Glasgow School of Art has been devastated by fire. The art school’s historic Mackintosh building, which was well on the way to being restored after the fire of 2014, has been extensively damaged in the blaze, badly affecting every floor.

More than 120 firefighters and 20 fire engines were at the scene late on Friday 15 June, but were unable to stop the fire spreading to the Campus nightclub and O₂ ABC music venue on Sauchiehall Street. The ABC has also been badly damaged, with a major part of the roof collapsing.

Iain Bushell, the deputy chief fire officer on the scene, called the fire an “extremely challenging and complex incident”. Thankfully nobody was injured. Yet well into Saturday afternoon, firefighters were still working hard to put the blaze out.

While the city’s residents come to terms with yet another dreadful fire in the city centre – an area only a couple of blocks away is still cordoned off following a major nightclub fire in March – here are our early thoughts about the causes and implications:


1. The cause of the fire

At this stage there are more questions than answers. It could have been caused by a small fire that burned for a substantial length of time and then accelerated – or it could have grown much more rapidly. Either way, there was a fully developed fire when the Fire Service arrived soon after the alarm was raised in the late evening.

The undiscovered, slow burning fire seems less likely. The upper floors and roof appear to have been well ablaze from the first images reported, which suggests the fire started on the upper levels and burned down through the building.

When a building is under construction – or in this case reonstruction – it is much more vulnerable to fire. It can mean more timber is exposed, as well as there being other openings in the structure that can allow a fire to spread unchecked.

Having said that, a typical cause of ignition on construction sites is “hot work” involving flames. Yet our understanding is that there was no such work taking place, and no workpeople actually on site.

Another common cause of fires is old faulty wiring. In 2002, for instance, a fire in the Gilded Balloon building in Edinburgh’s Old Town started from a faulty fuse box. It took 52 hours to fully extinguish and engulfed 11 buildings. Yet in the case of the Mackintosh building, faulty wiring is unlikely to have been the cause, given the late stage of the refurbishment.

2. How it spread

While it is not certain from the video footage and photos, the collapse of the roof of the O₂ ABC appears to have been caused by fire inside the building as opposed to fire penetrating the roof from the McIntosh building. This might raise issues about the fire separation between the two buildings.

When such a close group of buildings is erected today, there are strict rules about separation in the building regulations. But these cannot apply to historic buildings that have been adapted over many decades. Fires in historic buildings are not uncommon – see here for all those that were damaged in the UK last year, for example.

The School of Art building in 2005. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The restoration work to the Mackintosh building was well underway from the fire four years ago – apparently around 80 per cent completed. It was due to reopen next year with a final bill estimated at between £20m and £35m. Investigators will want to know about the specialist work that was being done, what materials were being used and which were on site.

Once you have high enough temperatures, of course, most things will start to burn. The Fire Service appear to have had a very challenging job just to limit the spread – let alone put the fire out altogether.

3. What happens next?

The damage at the Mackintosh building appears overwhelming, and much worse than in 2014, when recovered materials were painstakingly assessed and used in the refurbishment wherever possible. It seems questionable whether anything will be salvaged in the same way after this fire.

The ConversationIt remains to be seen if it will be possible to retain a facade from the current building. If not, damaged buildings have been taken down almost stone by stone in the past and rebuilt with a new, internal frame. This sort of project would cost a great deal more than the current refurbishment.

Iain Sanderson, Lecturer, Fire Risk Engineering, Glasgow Caledonian University; Billy Hare, Professor, Construction Management, Glasgow Caledonian University, and Tony Kilpatrick, Senior Lecturer, Fire Risk, Glasgow Caledonian University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.