Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2017.

Burned Again

Repeated fires at large New Jersey residential complexes raise questions over safe building practices, lightweight construction, and more.

BY ANGELO VERZONI

In the early hours of February 4, a fire destroyed almost half the units of a four-story, 235-unit apartment complex being built by real estate developer AvalonBay in Maplewood, New Jersey. None of the units were yet occupied and no injuries were reported, though damage will likely run into the tens of millions of dollars.

While the fire was noteworthy for its size and the damage that resulted, it takes on an added dimension considering that the same company experienced a devastating fire at another property just two years ago. In January 2015, a fire in a four-story AvalonBay complex in Edgewater, New Jersey, destroyed 240 of the complex’s 408 units, resulting in an estimated $80 million in damage and leaving more than 500 residents homeless.

The latest blaze highlights ongoing fire safety concerns for buildings under construction. “When a building is under construction, regardless of the materials being used, it is highly vulnerable to fire since fire protection systems are typically not yet in service and sheathing on walls and ceilings may not be in place, exposing combustible materials,” said Robert Solomon, NFPA’s division manager for building fire protection. “Add to that the presence of stored construction materials, and the extent and speed of fire growth is more random.”

NFPA 241, Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, includes measures to reduce the risk of fire in buildings under construction. Although NFPA 241 is referenced in NFPA 1, Fire Code, it remains one of NFPA’s lesser-known standards, and Solomon speculated that “it isn’t being enforced or adhered to very well.”

NFPA 241 establishes a number of requirements centered around the processes and procedures that should be used to mitigate potential fire hazards. The standard places the responsibilities for the on-site construction fire safety program on the building owner. Even relatively simple construction projects can have dire consequences when the provisions of NFPA 241 are not followed. A fire that killed two firefighters in Boston in 2014, for example, was the result of an exterior building modification involving hot work. The fire prompted NFPA to develop a hot works program to raise awareness of the inherent hazards associated with these procedures.

Local and state officials have also voiced concerns related to lightweight wood construction in the wake of the Maplewood fire—the type used in the construction of the complex—especially when used in buildings over three stories tall. Lightweight, or engineered, wood products contain resins and glues that can make them more combustible, and studies have shown they can lose their structural integrity quicker than traditional dimensional lumber when subjected to fire. “I don’t know if [lightweight wood buildings over three stories] have to be banned, but we certainly want to reduce the size of these buildings and upgrade the level of protection,” Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor and member of New Jersey’s Fire Code Advisory Council, told CBS New York.

The fire two years ago, which was sparked by workers making repairs to an occupied complex, raised questions related to NFPA 13R, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies, and whether a sprinkler system can be considered a success if no lives are lost in a fire but the structure experiences significant damage or is destroyed. The issue was covered in “Is this a sprinkler success?,” an article in the November/December 2016 NFPA Journal. The 2015 Edgewater fire was one of several events involving NFPA 13R sprinkler systems that NFPA has been aware of over the past decade.

Like the most recent AvalonBay fire, the 2015 Edgewater fire also generated concerns over lightweight wood construction. Following the fire, a New Jersey lawmaker proposed a temporary ban on the use of lightweight wood in new multi-family developments statewide, but the measure failed.

AvalonBay fires timeline

In 2000, the Edgewater complex was destroyed by fire while it was under construction. Media accounts described it as a “spectacular fire” that shot “towers of flame skyward, igniting neighboring homes and casting a brilliant glow visible from Manhattan.” The complex, valued at $60 million, was a total loss, and more than 50 people in neighboring residences were displaced.

AvalonBay has already said it will rebuild the Maplewood complex, and announced late last year it would rebuild the Edgewater property with added fire walls and an enhanced sprinkler system.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Bill Tompkins