Balconies provide an invaluable outdoor space and an ideal place for socialising for many flat owners and occupiers. However, they also bring risks associated with discarded cigarettes and the use of barbecues and heaters. Such risks mean that property owners and registered housing providers should consider reminding tenants of the wide variety of perils they could be exposing themselves to.

Our insurer partner Zurich explains more:

2023 has already seen the hottest June on record, and with the Summer predicted to rival 2022, it’s as important as ever to exercise caution when it comes to firing-up the barbecue. That’s especially the case in residential blocks with balconies. The recent heatwave saw a BBQ fire where residents over multiple floors had to flea as a fire took hold, causing £400,000 worth of damage to the flats affected.

Key Risks

Paul Redington – Regional Property Major Loss Manager at Zurich Insurance

Recent fires in private rental and social housing properties have demonstrated the potential hazards of the likes of carelessly discarded smoking materials setting fire to items on the ground, or to balconies below. Falling embers from barbecues represent a similar hazard.

Our claims experience shows that barbecues should never be used on balconies under any circumstances. This includes all types, all fuels and all sizes of barbecue – including those that are inappropriately being marketed for such use.

The risks are compounded by the fact that barbecues are often left unattended, and that wind speeds are stronger at a greater height. Wind patterns can be less predictable due to the proximity of neighbouring buildings. Combustible balcony contents and fixtures – such as reed screens for privacy – can also ignite. Finally, those contents can add to the confined layout of balconies, impacting the ease of escape for building occupants.

Unfortunately recent years have seen a number of significant claims that originated on balconies. The Zurich Property Major Loss Team has found that in most cases, the presence of timber was either the reason for ignition, or facilitated fire spread. These include balconies made of non-combustible materials, like metal, but otherwise decked with wood. In addition, properties built of brick and block, but where the outer face of walls have been clad with timber for aesthetic/design purposes. In the absence of these features most of these fires would have been far less significant, or simply would not have occurred in the first place.

Modern Methods of Construction

Allison Whittington – Head of Housing & Health at Zurich Municipal

The risks associated with the use of combustible cladding and building materials, as well as the use of timber for construction and façade of balconies and wider parts of the building, which are very common modern construction techniques, can be crucial factors and allow fire to spread quickly through a property.

Timber-framed structures are susceptible to a variety of ignition sources, including radiation from other fires. At Zurich, our experience has shown that when a timber-framed building ignites (for whatever reason), it can result in more serious and more widespread damage.

Therefore, fire resistance must be considered when using modern construction methods. This includes weighing up the combined properties of materials, with a need for joined-up thinking throughout design, build and maintenance, to ensure risks are recognised and addressed appropriately – not just in construction but also the inhabitation phase of a building’s lifecycle.