Professor Gordon Gibb pauses when he is asked how he felt after being told Glasgow School of Art’s prized ‘Mack’  had gone up in flames, a building he considered "the best in the world".

He fiddles with his phone and looks tearful as he considers the question.

"It was just absolute devastation," says the architect and former GSA lecturer-turned-whistleblower who also trained in the A-listed building.

"I was actually teaching in Belfast at the time and I got a call from a friend at the school to say it was happening. 

"The first feelings were sorrow and a terrible sense of loss. I loved the building - I learned there, I taught there.

"I could never believe it when they would give me the keys to the lecture theatre."

The Herald: The A-listed building is considered Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterpieceThe A-listed building is considered Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterpiece (Image: Contributed)

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) concluded that the fire began shortly after 12.30pm on May 21, 2014 when flammable gases from a canister of expanding foam came into contact with the hot surface of a projector.

It started in a studio being used by a student for an exhibition, whose identity has never been disclosed. Voids in the walls and old ventilation ducts allowed the fire to take hold and spread upwards towards the library.

The Herald: Firefighters tackling the blaze in 2014Firefighters tackling the blaze in 2014 (Image: Newsquest)

Prof Gibb believes the world-wide response to the first fire of shock followed by grief and the fact it was ruled an accident meant "very few questions were asked of management."

"They got away with the first fire because there was such an outpouring of support but they blithely carried on as they had before without ever reviewing if their behaviour that led to the first fire was wrong," says the architect.

Firefighters worked flat out to save the building, later announcing they had protected 70% of its contents and more than 90% of its structure although the prized library was destroyed.

The second fire was more catastrophic with most of the structure and contents reduced to rubble.

Prof Gibb was dismissed by Glasgow School of Art for misconduct after he spoke out, alleging that leadership failings were responsible for both fires.

"The first fire was caused by an unsupervised student doing something utterly ludicrous in a historic building," he says.

The Herald:

The art school had been in the process of installing a sprinkler system in the building following new regulations that came into force in 2005 and it was 95% complete.

"They had taken eight years longer than they should have done," claims Prof Gibb, who says press releases put out by the school became "increasingly defensive" and smeared his professional reputation.

"They didn't start thinking about doing it until 2013.

The Herald: Professor Gordon Gibb claims he lost his job for speaking out about failings which led to the two fires Professor Gordon Gibb claims he lost his job for speaking out about failings which led to the two fires (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

"In the process, they kept getting interrupted by the teaching staff who were saying it was inconvenient and they kept getting stopped so they didn't get it finished and commissioned on time and they had left all the panels off the walls where the new pipes were going in.

"So the student's exhibit was below the unprotected openings into the floor."

The fire spread like a chimney, says the architect, the flames rushing through the gaps and into ducts that were part of Mackintosh's heating and ventilation system.

He claims that if the panels had been replaced, the fire would have been contained in that room.

"They had a duty of care in respect of the care of that historic building," says the architect, who lives in Glasgow's west end.

"The art school was created for drawing and painting and a bit of sculpture," he added.

"They had decided (a few years prior to the first fire) to move the industrial processes of environmental art into the historic building so they had changed its use and were now doing things that involved electricity and flammable materials."

The Herald: 'They had a duty of care in respect of that historic building''They had a duty of care in respect of that historic building' (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

He says he was surprised by the school's 'business as usual' attitude after the first fire, claiming staff were told: "We used to have 11 buildings, we now have ten, we are still here."

He is critical that the school spent £8million to improve accessibility and the visitor experience  "in the same building that they didn't upgrade the sprinkler system."

Prof Gibb, whose father was the lead investigator in the Clarkston explosion in 1971 that claimed 22 lives, was brought in as a lecturer in the mid-1990s.

He was writing the final exam for architects by that point, running his own architectural practice and working as an expert witness in building fires.

He claims that three days after the second, more serious fire on the evening of June 15 2018 staff were taken to a meeting and warned not to speak to anyone.


Expert warned prized 'Mack' was 'potential furnace' 20 years before first fire 

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His reaction this time around was "shock and anger" rather than sorrow because his own investigations had led him to believe that "repetition was part of the problem."

He says the existing sprinkler system was ripped out during the rebuild and a new system was then installed 18 months after Kier Construction went on site.

He believes the new and old systems should have been run in parallel to provide coverage of the building site until the new system was ready to be commissioned, believing this would have saved the building from the second fire.

"The cause of the second fire spreading and not being able to be stopped was the same cause that cause the first fire to spread," he says.

The Herald: The ruins of Glasgow School of Art The ruins of Glasgow School of Art (Image: Newsquest)

"When you are working within an existing, historic, vulnerable structure with timber in it, you must not occupy the site with contractors offices, you must not have uncontrolled access into the building and you must protect the building during the construction process as quickly as possible all the way through. 

"When you take panels on to put new cables on, you put them back straight away. You never occupy a part of the building that is not sealed from the rest of the building.

"You must put your sprinklers in as quickly as possible."

An inquiry by Holyrood's culture committee, which he contributed to, concluded that GSA had failed to protect the 110-year old listed building from the "significant and obvious" risk of fire.

It said the GSA had been too lax in taking preventative measures, and should have installed a mist-based fire suppression system far sooner.

The Herald: The second fire was more catastrophic, gutting the buildingThe second fire was more catastrophic, gutting the building (Image: Newsquest)

Prof Gibb claims staff parties were held on the construction site during the rebuild but does not believe this is linked to the second fire. He is quite certain it was a targeted, arson attack.

The report by the SFRS was inconclusive but couldn't rule out this as a cause. A lone figure was captured on CCTV who has never been traced.

"The site should have been safe," he says. "There is never an excuse for an active building site going on fire." 

He claims that the school was originally looking at continuing to occupy the building during the restoration project, which was nearing completion when the second fire happened, but discovered this wouldn't be possible.

"As I understand on the basis of that they didn't upgrade the fire alarm system," he says.

After starting his own investigations into the fires he claims another member of staff was appointed to monitor his activities.

He was dismissed by Glasgow School of Art around 18 months after the second fire. 

He took the school to an employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal but lost his case.  It concluded that Prof Gibb had made statements in the media which were a "breach of the respondent’s policies and in no way fell within the ambit of academic freedom".

The judge, Mark Whitcombe, said Prof Gibb could have raised his concerns through GSA's whistleblowing policy and said they did not qualify as protected disclosures.

"I probably didn't have any hope of winning," he says. "The judge was applying the law."

"However, he stated that I was clearly an expert in my field." 

Prof Gibb says he has no regrets about speaking out and had "an enormous amount of support" from colleagues.

 "The issue is much bigger than me being employed by Glasgow School of  Art," he said.

He believes that the Mack building should be rebuilt in the image of the original, but says doing it now will be "unbelievably expensive".

The Herald: Glasgow School of Art's prized library Glasgow School of Art's prized library (Image: Newsquest)

"The building is an icon of Glasgow and it makes Glasgow bigger," he said.

He says he has no confidence that what remains of the Mack building is safe from the threat of another fire and would like to see the school taken over by a trust.

"Glasgow School of Art is a quango and the only body that the board is answerable to is the Scottish Funding Council," he says.

"The solution is to take the art school building away from Glasgow School of Art and give it to a trust, whose only role is to protect that building and the school can become a tenant.

"That's the only way you can preserve its future."

He believes that the twin fires should have led to a public inquiry "because it would have given the Scottish Government the right to obtain documents that he claims the school has refused to give out".

He added: "The problem is that the second fire was caused by nothing being learned from the first.

"If we don't learn from the second, this is going to continue if not in the Glasgow School of Art, in other historic buildings."

Scott Parsons, director of strategy and marketing at The Glasgow School of Art said: "We have always recognised that some people have very strong opinions on the circumstances surrounding and responses to the 2014 and 2018 fires. 

"These have been acknowledged, considered and responded to by us and others through the SFRS fire investigation report, the Scottish Parliament Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee and in the media. 

"While we appreciate some opinions remain strongly held, our focus, attention and effort is on working to progress what is a very complex project alongside our primary purpose of education and research in art, design and architecture."