In the last year or so, there have been several fire incidents during the construction of wood-framed residential buildings. Recently, in January 2021, a fire at the Ely at Fort Apache apartment complex in Las Vegas completely destroyed the building, racking up an estimated $25-30 million in damages. Or last year, a Jacksonville, Florida grew so large that it shut down a portion of nearby Interstate 295 and forced the local fire department to deploy 45 apparatus, including 14 engines and seven ladder trucks. In both of these cases, as well as other similar fires, there were two clear similarities:
According to a recent NFPA report, between 2013 and 2017, "fires in structures under construction caused an average of four civilian deaths, 49 civilian injuries, and $304 million in direct property damage annually." In the same report, it is noted that three out of every four construction fires occur in residential buildings. During the 5 year timeframe in the report, 42% of the direct property damage was caused by fires starting from electrical distribution and lighting equipment.
Fires in wood buildings are certainly not a new development, but over the last several building code cycles, various code changes have been enacted that allow for larger and more complex wood buildings. For example, in the 2015 IBC, the "podium" concept, where a wood-framed buildings can be constructed on top of a Type IA podium, allowing for an overall larger building, was expanded to allow multiple levels of Type IA construction beneath the podium. More recently, in the 2021 IBC, Type IV construction has been significantly expanded to now include three different sub-categories (Types IV-A, IV-B and IV-C), allowing for substantially taller and larger heavy timber buildings.
Without a doubt, there are numerous benefits to wood-framed construction. Reduced carbon emissions, faster construction and reduced building costs - all are positive reasons for designers to choose wood buildings. But the very nature of wood being a combustible material brings inherent risks, particularly during construction where fire protection systems are not yet in place.
How to Respond?
While recent code changes have allowed for larger and more complex wood buildings, requirements for safeguards during construction have evolved as well. For example, in the 2021 IBC, Chapter 33 has been updated with a few notable changes:
NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, does provide requirements that are often more stringent than IBC Chapter 33. But many jurisdictions do not adopt or enforce compliance with this standard.
Apart from the model codes, many local jurisdictions have enacted their own requirements. In addition to requirements for protection during construction, I am also seeing local requirements for pursuing phased occupancy, where building owners want to occupy a portion of a building while other areas are still under construction. For example, Fairfax County, VA publishes a standard operating procedure document for phased occupancy that institutes a variety of building and site requirements that have to be met before phased occupancy can be considered.
But even with national and local codes addressing the issue, the magnitude of these fire losses does force you to ask: Is enough being done?
What are you Seeing?
What trends are you seeing in your area? Does your local building or fire department have any specific requirements for fire protection during construction or phased occupancy, particularly for wood buildings? While I don't think there is a one size fits all solution to such a problem, I'm very interested in hearing a variety of perspectives from across the country. Please share in the comment section below!