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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.