Lawmakers scrutinize building codes in wake of multi-story apartment conflagration

Sources: Portland Cement Association, Skokie, Ill.; CP staff

Concrete industry stakeholders are tracking New Jersey officials’ response to a massive fire that destroyed more than half of Avalon at Edgewater, a four-level, 408-unit apartment complex framed with lightweight wood trusses. Reportedly triggered by a plumbing crew’s welding torch, the mid-January blaze saw no loss of life and minor injuries, but displaced more than 1,000 residents of the development and neighboring properties.

PCA cites New Jersey Assemblyman Scott Rumana’s (R-40) proposed legislation requiring evaluation of the appropriateness of light-frame construction for multi-family dwellings, and imposing a moratorium on such practice until a determination and recommendations are adopted.

“With concrete and masonry construction, as well as appropriate sprinkler application, most fires would not have the potential to spread this rapidly,” says PCA Northeast Region Executive Director Patrick Reardon Jr. “While developers might be tempted to save on initial costs by utilizing cheaper building construction, non-combustible materials such as concrete, masonry or steel minimize the damage that could be caused in an emergency and increase building costs only marginally.” A Fire Safety Construction Advisory Council (FSCAC) study, he adds, finds the cost difference ranges from 3 percent more to 3 percent less when builders switch to a two-hour non-combustible material against lesser construction.

Stringent fire safety provisions are the basic requirements of any code, including New Jersey’s, which is modeled after the International Building Code. However, the code permits structural fire protection reductions wherever automatic sprinklers are present. According to Reardon, recent passive fire protection provisions in new construction reduce the use of non-combustible materials like concrete in favor of installing sprinklers. “The concrete construction industries have long advocated for balanced design for property protection and life safety,” he notes. “This combines active systems, such as fire detection and suppression (sprinklers), with passive containment like concrete masonry and steel and provides an increased level of safety.”

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