Sowton Cottages after the fire and the subsequent collapse of the buildings

The council’s Building Control team plays a key role in many accidents and emergency situations

Everyone appreciates the amazing job that the emergency services do when attending car crashes, house fires and other accidents and emergencies - frequently putting themselves in harm’s way to help others. But many people will be unaware of another form of emergency service provided by East Devon District Council, whose Building Control team also has a key role to play in many of these incidents.

Whenever a vehicle crashes into a building, wall or other structure, then the safety of that building may be compromised. This is when the council’s Building Control team arrives on the scene to advise the emergency services on the safety of the affected structure. 

Fires, too, can raise significant safety issues for the emergency services and East Devon’s Building Control’s advice is sought here as well. The work of the team can often involve overseeing urgent works such as bracing and propping of walls and structures, as well as fencing off hazardous areas next to damaged structures.

One recent incident occurred in the early hours of 15 February 2018, when a speeding van crashed into the front of the Ocean Centre on Exmouth Seafront. Although no one was seriously injured the vehicle damaged one of the main supports holding up the front of the building and the police were concerned about getting too close.

It was the Building Control Officer who inspected the damage and carried out a risk assessment before advising the emergency services that it was safe to go in to the building and remove the vehicle. Once this was done the officer oversaw the remedial works in boarding up the front of the building and fencing off the adjacent area of the footpath to ensure the safety of pedestrians.

The next day, with the benefit of daylight, a more detailed survey was carried out and it was found that the underlying structure was still sound and that much of the damage was cosmetic. As a result the premises were able to open again later that same day.                  

When it comes to house fires, Paul Seager, East Devon’s Building Control Manager explains what the first actions are when he is called out to an incident:

Often it’s a deep breath first and then it’s a question of working through issues like the isolation of gas, water and electric supplies, assessment of structural walls and damaged lintels, and direction of supported floors and loads. Work can then begin with the fire service to safely clear areas to allow temporary props to be installed to prevent further collapse. Decisions are then made about how best to repair the building. This part of Building Control's work can be complicated, dangerous and decisions need to be taken quickly to ensure conditions don’t get any worse.

One such case was a recent house fire in Sowton, which affected two Grade II listed cottages.

Paul Seager explains what happened:

Our Building Control Surveyor attended the scene and worked closely with the emergency services, ensuring that the risks to the lives of all those involved was kept to a minimum. He gave advice about safe access to the building to fight the fire. Then once the building was declared unoccupied and everyone was safely out, the priority was to save the structure of these listed buildings by careful management of the firefighting process.

Once the fire service were finishing up it was then important to assess the safety of the remains of the building in more detail.

It appeared that there was no immediate risk of collapse,” said Paul, “but we had to be very careful as the buildings fronted onto the only road in and out of the village, which is a narrow country lane. Any collapse could therefore have had disastrous consequences. We fitted some tell-tale markers to the building, which were used to monitor the movement of cracks in the walls. These were then checked regularly over the following days (in this case a weekend).

The situation was further complicated by the different materials used in the construction of the cottages with one being built from cob and the other from a mixture of stone and brick. These materials respond differently to stress as became clear a few days later when with little warning the cob cottage partially collapsed into the road.

Fortunately no-one was injured and the road was blocked by emergency vehicles still involved in the incident, but the collapse had further damaged the remaining parts of the neighbouring cottage.

We quickly had to decide which elements were safe and could be saved and which ones sadly had to be taken down - in this case it was a chimney and part of a second chimney.  The remains of the cottages that could be saved were then propped and supported by scaffolding. The cost of all of this is the responsibility of the owners via their insurance companies, but we commissioned and oversaw the works to protect the health and safety of the public and to reopen the road as quickly as possible.   

We are now working closely with the owners, their insurers and the council’s Conservation team on the long term future of the building during the reconstruction.

Incidents rarely happen at a convenient time and often occur in the middle of the night.  They can also happen while an officer is busy carrying out other duties, such as inspecting new build developments and building alterations to ensure that they are built in accordance with building regulations.

Building regulations are basically health and safety standards for buildings and ensure that they are built safely and to the right standards in terms of insulation, fire proofing and other key measures to protect residents. Consent is needed for many extensions and alterations to homes and is separate from planning permission.

While the council retains the powers to deal with dangerous structures and incidents like fires, for the rest of Building Control’s work, the team has to compete for business with the private sector. However, we pride ourselves on being the best and among the most competitively priced. Our detailed and thorough approach will help prevent your home improvements from falling down around your ears ,just as we will prevent damaged structures from falling down on you.