Historically, building codes have always been driven by death and destruction: first comes the catastrophe, then comes the rule for how to prevent it from happening again. That cycle may now be repeating in New Jersey, where a runaway fire in a large wood-framed apartment building is triggering calls for a toughening of codes to require more sprinklers, better fire separation assemblies, and the use of more non-combustible materials.
The fire happened in Edgewater, New Jersey, on the night of January 21. Leaping flames were visible from Manhattan, and New York City fire crews responded to help the local fire departments battle the blaze. The New York Times had this report (see: "Edgewater Fire Drives Hundreds From Apartment Building," by Emma G. Fitzsimmons and John Surico). Writes the Times, "About 400 residents were evacuated to a nearby school, said Edmund Rhoads, a spokesman for AvalonBay Communities, the company that owns the complex. Some residents later relocated to a local community center where they were planning to spend the night, he said, adding that the Red Cross was involved."
"The fire broke out around 4:30 p.m., and the 408-unit building was quickly evacuated," NBC New York reported (see: "Luxury New Jersey Apartment Complex Destroyed in Massive Fire," by Brynn Gingras and Michael George). "After firefighters first responded, the fire appeared under control for some time, but it escalated in the back part of the complex, which responders had a hard time accessing. The blaze then spread to the northern section of the building, engulfing multiple units."
Fire officials took advantage of the incident to repeat their view, widely held among firefighters, that today's typical wood framing methods create an increased risk of structure fires, compared to methods used in the past. "One responding fire chief told NBC 4 New York he thought lightweight wood construction was a factor in how quickly the fire spread," the station reported. "'It collapses very easily, and the fire spreads very easily throughout,'" he said."
On February 1, Glenn P. Corbett, is an associate professor of fire science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and a former assistant chief of the Waldwick Fire Department, presented the fire service view at greater length in a guest editorial in the North Jersey Record (see: Opinion: A preventable blaze? by Glenn P. Corbett).
Writes Corbett: "Firefighters nationwide know that lightweight wood trusses collapse easily and quickly under fire attack, endangering their lives and the lives of building occupants. The relatively large amount of surface area compared with the mass of the trusses ensures that fire can envelope and destroy them easily. In addition, the triangle form of the trusses with large openings between its small components allows fire to spread quickly within and through them, spreading throughout floors and attics with incredible speed. Once the fire has taken possession of a portion of a truss floor or attic, it is an unstoppable situation for any fire department."
Besides criticizing the wood framing, Corbett took aim at sprinkler rules, writing: "In order to encourage more fire sprinklers in residential buildings (where the overwhelming number of fire fatalities occur), NFPA 13R was created. To make it less costly, it specifically allows for the omission of sprinkler heads in small closets and bathrooms, unused attics and large void spaces such as the open spaces within wooden floor trusses; the building is only partially protected. While the areas where sprinkler heads have been eliminated are statistically unlikely to be the starting point for fires, if a fire does start there, all bets are off and the fire is off to the races. This problem has resulted in some in the fire service to refer to NFPA 13R systems as '13 Roulette' systems, knowing that if a fire starts in an unsprinklered area, it's as if the system doesn't even exist."
Outlawing wood-framed multifamily structures altogether, Corbett concedes, is politically impossible. But he argues: "If we are to continue with wood-frame construction, then the NFPA 13R sprinkler systems must be replaced with a complete NFPA 13 fire sprinkler system (which has sprinklers everywhere, including void spaces and other places not required in NFPA 13R), masonry fire walls that run from the foundation through the roof, and incredibly vigilant oversight on the critical draft-stopping and fire-stopping in the void spaces."
Lobbyists for homebuilders have their own counters to the typical fire service points. They argue that while sprinkler requirements may save structures, their cost as a requirement in every building is likely to exceed the value of property saved in the few buildings that do catch fire. And the builder lobby argues that working smoke detectors and alarms are a sufficient means to protect life in homes built to modern standards.
In the latest New Jersey fire, as it happens, there were no deaths or serious injuries (although the property losses were substantial). Still, it's fair to note that in practice, residents may not respond appropriately to fire or smoke alarms. This report from NJ.com contains 911 call center recordings of residents making emergency calls from the Avalon complex that burned. With alarms ringing throughout the building, some residents did not evacuate — instead calling 911 in the wrong town to ask what was going on (see: "Confusion among residents as fire begins to tear through Edgewater complex," by Myles Ma).
Following the fire, New Jersey officials seem open to the idea that codes might need to get tougher. In particular, some local officials are focusing on a new multifamily project under construction in Princeton, New Jersey, by the same company that developed the Edgewater complex that burned. The Princeton Packet has that story (see: "PRINCETON: Mayor calls for new safety measures on AvalonBay complex," by Philip Sean Curran).
"Mayor Liz Lempert on Tuesday called for new safety measures to prevent another fire like the one at the AvalonBay complex in Edgewater two weeks ago," the Packet reports, "this as Avalon prepares to build 280 units at the old Princeton Hospital site… In particular, she said the state needs to strengthen building codes to require sprinklers in attic spaces and require concrete dividing walls."
Interestingly, the site of January's Edgewater fire saw another huge fire more than a decade ago. In essence, this building has burned twice, reports NJ.com (see: "History repeats: Edgewater apartment complex destroyed by flames for second time," by James Kleimann).
"It's not the first time a massive inferno has engulfed the Avalon apartment complex –– the 408-unit building overlooking the Palisades Cliffs was under construction on Aug. 30, 2000 when a fast-moving fire ripped through the property and destroyed a dozen surrounding homes before eventually fizzling out," the story says. "Though no deaths or serious injuries were recorded ... the $75 million apartment complex, in the later stages of construction at the time of the fire, was wholly destroyed within a half hour, eventually swallowing two unfinished four-story apartment buildings, nine neighboring homes and 12 cars, damaging dozens more."
But this fire happened before the building was finished and occupied. And it's this risk — the danger of fire during construction, before walls are fully clad and before any fire suppression systems are in place or operational — that perhaps should concern multifamily builders, even if they're comfortable with the finished characteristics of their creations. At the rough framing stage, large apartment complexes are remarkably vulnerable to catastrophic fire. Two recent cases on the West Coast — one in San Francisco, and one in Los Angeles — serve to illustrate the point.
In San Francisco, a complex in the city's Mission District caught fire last March after workers had gone home for the day, reported the San Francisco Chronicle (see: "Huge San Francisco fire destroys six-story apartment project," by Kevin Fagan, Jaxon Van Derbeken, Victoria Colliver and Vivian Ho). "The five-alarm fire engulfed the building on Fourth Street near China Basin Street just before 5 p.m., sending black smoke thousands of feet into the sky," the paper reported Scaffolding melted as chunks of the six-story, 80-foot-tall building fell away. Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White called it the city's largest blaze in several years… The building's sprinkler system had not yet been installed, Hayes-White said, and, as a result, the fire 'really took off. It went up really quickly.'"
The San Francisco fire, like last month's New Jersey fire, was accidentally ignited by workers (welders probably sparked the fire in San Francisco, while maintenance workers using a torch reportedly set off the New Jersey fire). But a December 2014 fire Los Angeles was arson, according to news reports. The Los Angeles Times covered the fire as breaking news on December 8 (see: "'Tower of fire' destroys L.A. apartment complex under construction," by Marisa Gerber, Matt Stevens, and Joe Mozingo). "It took 250 firefighters an hour and a half to put out the fire that broke out in the Da Vinci apartment complex about 1:20 a.m. Monday," the paper reported. "The development, the size of a city block at the juncture of the Harbor and Hollywood freeways, was in the process of being framed, mostly with wood. No one lived there yet and no injuries were reported… The building had 1.3 million square feet of floor space, with two concrete-walled floors at the bottom and five wood-framed ones above."
Investigators quickly determined that the fire was set, and that an accelerant was detected at the scene, the Times reported (for the Los Angeles Times' full coverage of the fire, see: "Fire in downtown Los Angeles").