Losing a property through fire whether it is your home or your business is devastating and the natural desire is to complete the repair work and get back in as soon as possible.
Cutting corners will inevitably lead to problems later and these can be expensive and disruptive to resolve. Ruth Partington from our Project & Building Consultancy team answers some common questions about making a building habitable again after a blaze.
What does my insurance company pay for after a fire?
This will depend on your policy cover and whether you have complied with any requirements that your insurer has stipulated on the policy (for example the length of time that the property is unoccupied, whether you have had any working chimneys swept etc). It will also depend on whether the sum insured is adequate.
If there are no issues with the level of cover, the insurance company is required to put the property back into the same condition as it was before the fire. You can improve the property or make alterations at the same time as the reinstatement is taking place providing that you fund any additional costs involved.
The loss adjuster’s specialist surveyors can be instructed to specify and manage the works or you can appoint your own who will be overseen by the loss adjuster. Reasonable and pre-agreed fees for your own specialist will usually be covered as part of the claim. The alternative is to agree a cash settlement with the insurer which you can then use to carry out the repairs, but this can be risky because the cost of rectifying any unforeseen issues will fall to you.
Why do you need to dry a building after a fire?
The “flood” of water used to extinguish a fire is actually more damaging long term than the original fire. It’s therefore not just about removing the fire damaged elements and replacing them. A thorough drying regime must be put into place as early as possible and completed before, and alongside the reinstatement of the buildings fixtures and fittings.
Why is everything being removed?
To minimise the amount of time spent drying a building it is vital to strip out all the elements that will not be reused. Any materials that don’t allow water to pass through them should be stripped out. Valuable timber doors, panelling and even parquet flooring should be removed and stored appropriately as soon as possible to prevent warping and cupping that cannot be reversed. Some of these items look ok to start with but often deteriorate over the following weeks.
Why is the drying taking so long?
This can be for a number of reasons. Generally older buildings need slower, more careful drying. The thickness of the walls will affect the rate of drying. Also it might be surprising to know but it’s quicker to dry a building in the winter than the summer, because cooler winter air is capable of absorbing more moisture.
Why are you looking at the drains?
Remaining gutters and downpipes are often full of fire debris and need to be cleared through to prevent more water ingress. Similarly the underground drainage can also contain a substantial amount of debris and so clearing these drains will prevent blockages and any potential back up of water into the property.
The building was dried after my fire three years ago so why does it smell of damp now?
Just because the walls are registering as “dry” with a damp meter does not mean that they are fully dry – this is a particular hazard in very thick walls or random stone walls. Inserting relative humidity sleeves into very thick walls will allow measurements to be taken at depth to ensure that the walls are fully dry. Older buildings with a more unpredictable construction method may also catch you out.
I have seen significant damp issues in a building 15 years after a fire where the lower ground floor was so damp that its decoration would spoil constantly. Specialist drying was required to resolve this.
Why am I getting damp patches even though it was dried?
It is a mistake to assume that the building will dry evenly. Some areas can hold water and may need to be tented to focus the drying onto the small area in question. If adequate damp readings are not taken it is easy to miss these areas. Failure to deal with these pockets of damp can lead to mould growth, rot and spoiled decoration.
Partition walls containing insulation will need to be checked – quilt insulation may be wet within the void with no prospect of drying. Similarly cavity wall insulation can hold moisture within it.
For these reasons it is always worth employing a specialist drying contractor who can accurately monitor progress and certify when the building is dry.
We’ve had all this work done but my property still smells of smoke, why?
Residual smells can be one of the most problematic things to resolve after a fire. Smell is a personal perception – what is unacceptable to one person might be unnoticeable to another. The most effective way of ridding a building of the post fire smells is via thermal fogging. This is perfumed smoke which is pumped into the building and finds all the same nooks and crannies that the original smoke found. Usually one round of fogging is sufficient, but occasionally two are necessary.
About the author
Ruth Partington is an associate director in our Project & Building Consultancy team, she has almost 25 years’ experience as a chartered building surveyor and previously worked as a specialist surveyor at a loss adjusters where she specialised in the reinstatement of fire and flood damaged properties.
To contact Ruth, email Ruth.Partington@colliers.com