the staff of the Ridgewood blog
Edgewater NJ, One year ago today, a fast-moving fire sparked by a maintenance worker’s blowtorch climbed up the walls and through unsprinklered spaces of the Avalon Edgewater apartment complex.
The blaze was first reported at 4:22 p.m. on Jan. 21, 2015, sending 500 first responders to the Russell Avenue complex.
Before it was over, the fire destroyed 240 of the 408 units, displacing 500 people who lived in apartments and another 520 residents from nearby homes affected by the fire. Firefighters rescued three people from smoke-filled apartments. No one was killed and only minor injuries were reported.
In the many months since the fire, there have been efforts both to compensate residents who lost everything and to make changes to building codes.
Maybe its time to build large-scale apartment/condo structures out of non-combustible construction, not wood?
Why are reforms needed ? The area limits long established in code for wood buildings have been circumvented, and now phony wood “buildings,” defined by coreboard fire assemblies, which do not work to contain massive fires, are being constructed inside much larger detached wood structures, the size of city blocks or larger.
The unintended consequences are massive fires that, in a single fire start, destroy entire detached wood structures, and as many as hundreds of wood apartment homes within them, entire neighborhoods, or communities as their developers call them. These conflagrations are endangering densely populated areas.
Fire departments have given up on saving the properties, and after rescuing people inside, stay outside spraying water on top of the structure from tall ladders that sit atop very expensive fire trucks which municipalities purchase. The lightweight wood that is used to construct these huge wood residential structures collapses very quickly when burning, and firefighters fight these fires defensively because it is too dangerous to remain inside the buildings.
Why not build beautifully designed and affordable non-combustible apartment/condo buildings in New Jersey? Long-lasting construction is sustainable. The highly combustible, lightweight wood apartment megablocks that are currently in fashion in New Jersey are not. These disposable buildings are not sustainable, nor affordable, in the long-term.
Here is a cost study comparison between lightweight wood construction and non-combustible. The study prices out different methods of construction and shows costs of construction 3-5% higher, or even comparable, for non-combustible construction as compared to lightweight wood construction. http://www.pafscac.org/pdf/FireSafety_brochure.pdf
Johnathan Arnold is the developer for the very green, affordable, and non-combustible River Market development in downtown Kansas City. Thick concrete walls mean apartments/condos will be quiet. For drawing of project click here: http://bit.ly/2f5CRbt .
Developer Jonathan Arnold; “The idea is to build buildings the way we used to, which tended to last hundreds of years. We decided to build 2nd and Delaware so that it would be, one, long lasting, and offer a quality of life often times not found in apartments, and then bring a level of energy efficiency to the building that would make a significant dent on the buildings carbon emissions and address things like climate change.”
“We got the idea for the project approximately three years ago when we starting working with the United Nations and learning about all the tools that are available for sustainable development, and we decided let’s stop talking about it and put them all together in one building.” See Jonathan Arnold speaking about the project in this video. http://bit.ly/2eXLGW0
Instead of using non-combustible construction for large-scale apartment/condo structures, two technological fixes have been proposed — (1) using commercial fire suppression systems in these huge lightweight wood residential structures and (2) requiring masonry firewalls instead of coreboard fire barriers. However, these two fixes alone would not prevent the regular conflagrations that are occurring across in the country, in occupied, near-completion, and under-construction enormous wood residential complexes.
(1) Requiring commercial NFPA 13 fire suppression rather than the residential NFPA 13R standard, which does not require sprinklers or materials to prevent fire spread in the attic, would help prevent fires.
But, sprinklers do not always work.
According to the organization which analyzes our fire statistics, the National Fire Protection Association, sprinklers only operate effectively 87% of the time. And this does not include failures due to improper maintenance or the lack of an adequate water supply.
In addition to the failure of sprinklers in occupied buildings, sprinklers are not operational (nor are fire barriers) during construction, and massive fires occur frequently in large-scale, highly combustible, lightweight wood residential structures that are under construction. The Los Angeles 2014 conflagration in an under-construction, over 500 unit, apartment complex caused $80 million in damages to a city-owned high-rise next door and closed two freeways. National code expert Jay Hall wrote to us that the under-construction complex in LA that burned was constructed of fire retardant treated wood (FRTW). Although the fire retardant chemicals slow the initial start of a fire, once FRTW starts burning, it can create conflagrations just like untreated wood.
‘Tower of fire’ destroys L.A. apartment complex under construction, Los Angeles Times, Dec 8, 2014, http://lat.ms/2enWJKp
Furthermore, there are fires that start on the exterior of a structure and run up to the roof, never activating sprinklers, like the massive fire in Edmonton Canada in 2015 where 100 lightweight wood homes were destroyed. See the Edmonton fire: http://bit.ly/1SGjiU2
Another example of sprinklers not preventing a massive fire is the conflagration that occurred in 2015 in Edgewater NJ, when plumbing work ignited highly combustible wood beams in the walls, where there are no sprinklers (and will not be even with a commercial NFPA 13 system). The fire ran through the walls for some time with little evidence of fire (no smoke) before the magnitude of the fire was even recognized by firefighters. See video of Edgewater Fire Chiefs and Investigator discussing that fire in which 240 luxury apartment homes were lost, 500 people displaced permanently and 500 more displaced temporarily.http://bit.ly/1S3lAfy. (Edgewater fire officials from 4 mins to 45 mins.)
An earlier devastating fire in the same Edgewater complex in 2000 destroyed soon-to-be-open luxury apartment structures, with 408 units, in which sprinklers were not yet active. The lightweight wood conflagration spread to occupied buildings nearby and destroyed 9 surrounding homes. http://bit.ly/1O7WDhs
(2) Replacing coreboard fire assemblies with through-the-roof solid masonry firewalls would also help to prevent the spread of massive fires between interior wood “buildings” in these huge highly combustible apartment/condo structures.
However, wind-driven fires leap even through-the-roof masonry firewalls.
Building highly combustible wood frame residential structures the size of city blocks, no matter what technology is employed to keep them from burning, or how carefully inspections are performed, puts the public at risk for conflagrations in heavily populated areas and for large losses of homes in a single fire start.
Many of these lightweight wood conflagrations occur when structures are either under construction or near completion, when fire barriers may not yet be in place and sprinklers are not activated. These conflagrations spread and destroy or severely damage nearby occupied buildings.
The solution cannot depend solely on fire barriers and sprinklers alone; the size of these lightweight wood structures needs to be limited in area as well as height, so as to limit the size of massive fires and prevent conflagrations in heavily populated areas. It has long been acknowledged that large-scale structures should be built of non-combustible materials, which are affordable and sustainable.
The cost to the taxpayer in fighting these lightweight wood conflagrations, which occur regularly across the country, and the cost to residents in insurance premiums and the loss of their homes and possessions, means that public and individual finance suffers for the profit of developers, often large sophisticated corporations.