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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.