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The cult of cheap construction

Portland Cement Association Chief Economist Ed Sullivan reported at the 2015 International Builders’ Show last month that housing starts will increase 20 percent this year—to 1.2 million units, up from roughly 950,000 units in 2014. The multifamily sector should see a 12 percent jump from last year’s levels, good for 400,000 unit starts. Apartment and condominium building will exhibit continued strength over the next five years, he added, as demographic trends reshape entry and exit patterns of the single-family unit market.

 

A footnote or disclaimer for the PCA numbers, more appropriate here than at a National Association of Home Builders gathering in Las Vegas: Year-to-year figures in multifamily building activity could be slightly skewed due to a rash of project fires necessitating developers and builders start from scratch. A current National Fire Protection Association NFPA Journal report concludes, “2014 was a very bad year for fire-related property loss at residential construction sites.” Flames swept wood-laden developments under way from Maryland, Indianapolis and Houston to Los Angeles and San Francisco. NFPA’s “In a Flash” also references American Wood Council-initiated technical manuals to help construction and fire service professionals prevent residential site blazes.

Promoting site safety in any type of building or construction speaks for itself. When working with an abundance of wood for a structure users will call their home, the goal should always be to get a property code-compliant and market ready before it burns down.

The life-safety rationale for use of noncombustible assemblies—principally cast-in-place or precast concrete and concrete or clay masonry—in multifamily dwelling is long settled, especially at critical points of wood-heavy project designs. That has not stopped some material and equipment interests from advocating trade-offs that net code-compliant, yet very lightweight structures.

A catastrophic fire in New Jersey late last month reminds all how fast wood can burn long after a builder or developer turns over the keys. Luckily resulting in no fatalities and only minor injuries to a handful of firefighters and civilians, the blaze destroyed or severely damaged more than half of Avalon at Edgewater, a 408-unit apartment complex built to 1990s-level code with conventional wood methods. News footage from the scene, to which 500-plus fire service members responded, suggested limited presence of flame-containing, noncombustible vertical or horizontal assemblies.

Located along the Hudson River, across from New York City, Avalon at Edgewater had 257-unit and 151-unit buildings, the former left uninhabitable. Between the main building and neighboring residences, according to news reports, the fire displaced more than 1,000 people. It was triggered by a plumbing crew’s welding equipment and spread quickly in the larger, four-level building, its functioning automatic fire sprinklers no match for the flames.

From a press briefing the following day, New York Times and Associated Press reports quoted Edgewater Fire Chief Tom Jacobson cutting to the chase: “If it was made out of concrete and cinder block, we wouldn’t have this sort of problem.” He cited especially the development’s use of lightweight wood trusses, which invite rapid flame spread.

Pacing Chief Jacobson for candor was past Bergen County Fire Chiefs Association President Jack Murphy, telling northern New Jersey’s The Record: “The occupants of this building probably didn’t realize they were basically living in the middle of a lumberyard.”

Although not quite in the middle, New Jersey is comfortably within a market radius well served by producers of concrete masonry and prestressed hollow core plank—common wall and floor solutions for multifamily dwellings. They are among concrete building options that can be specified with assurances of protecting occupants and owners’ investments, and never fostering construction- or service-phase conditions ripe for an inferno.