On June 28, 2017, a fire destroyed a brand new, unoccupied building in Boston, MA. Like many other buildings, the Ashmont building was constructed out of “lightweight” wooden building materials. The cause of the fire remains under investigation and there was a sprinkler system installed in the building, which was slated to be activated the day after the fire occurred.
Located in the Ashmont neighborhood of Boston, a fire demolished the Treadmark Building on Dorchester Ave. The fire started on the 6th floor at approximately 2:30 p.m., spreading very quickly leaving the firefighters to control the fire from the exterior of the building. There were more than 125 firefighters that remained on scene overnight to attempt to contain the fire. Local residents were told to remain inside due to the air quality. The Treadmark Building was an unoccupied 83-unit apartment building, set to open in July, only a couple of weeks after the fire.
On January 21, 2015 a similarly constructed building located in Edgewater, NJ was also completely destroyed. The blaze was sparked by the AvalonBay workers who delayed their calls to 911 for approximately 15 minutes, during which time the fire spread out of control. As a result, 1,000 residents were displaced. The worker sparked the fire at approximately 4:00 p.m. and immediately called his supervisor rather than the authorities. Emergency services was first notified of the fire at 4:22 p.m. by the automated fire alarm in the building. Six calls were made to dispatch, and none of them were made by AvalonBay employees. The workers were unlicensed plumbers attempting to fix a leaky pipe inside the wall of a bathroom. The company is facing three civil lawsuits filed by displaced tenants.
“Lightweight” building materials have become increasingly popular over recent decades. Also known as “manufactured lumber”, lightweight building materials are made of many smaller pieces of wood, which are glued together under pressure as opposed to “dimensional lumber” which is sawn directly from a tree. Manufactured floor joists, also known as a “silent floor”, is lighter than dimensional lumber, thus reducing shipping and labor costs. The strength of manufactured floor joists also allows greater design flexibility, due to their ability to span greater lengths than traditional lumber. Manufactured lumber also uses fewer natural resources, making it a more environmentally sensitive alternative to traditional dimensional lumber.
Although modern building codes do allow for the use of manufactured lumber, there lies some controversy with respect to its safety. The requirement to protect wooden building components from fire exists in some building codes, which are largely universal as the same codes are adopted in multiple states. Protection of wooden building components comes in several forms, including the installation of fireproof materials used to cover the wooden framing or sprinkler systems designed and installed to extinguish a fire in those areas within a building where wooden building components exist, such as basements, attics and crawl spaces.
Currently, building and fire codes are written by code organizations such as the International Code Council. For example, the building codes in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey are written by the International Code Council, with state-specific amendments and/or addendums.
Often, such fires result in civil litigation, the plaintiff’s being those who have suffered damages in the fire, either by loss of property or personal injury. The attorney engaged to represent either the plaintiff or the defendant will most likely hire a qualified building code expert witness to help them navigate their way through the litigation process. In such a case, an expert witness specializing in architectural, building, construction, design or engineering will most likely be engaged.
To determine the value of the loss, a forensic construction cost analysis may be required. The most well-suited candidate for estimating construction costs would be an experienced construction professional familiar with estimating construction costs. Often, an experienced contractor is a logical choice, due to his or her extensive experience in estimating the cost of construction. In the civil litigation process, it is important that the construction and building code expert witness engaged by the attorney use a recognized and reliable construction cost resource to estimate the cost of the reconstruction. Such cost resources are published and available, such as those published by R.S. Means.
To view a demonstration of how fire effects manufactured lumber versus traditional dimensional lumber, play the video below.