Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Brandnew - up in flames. Are tall wood buildings a folly?

Sometimes reality catches up with marketing in an unfortunate way, as in the case of the project dubbed Fuse 47 which kept 200 firefighters busy all day yesterday after it went up in flames in a five alarm fire only weeks from the final completion day scheduled for June.
Tons of water being poured on a brand-new apartment complex

I am not familiar with the details of this particular project, but from what fire chief Ben Barksdale of Prince George's County said yesterday, he is afraid of collapse due to the heavy load from 650 gallons of water per minute placed on the building. There was talk that the building "was currently only supported by wood" and could pancake floor by floor.

It is likely that the construction of this apartment building is five over one, the construction type that allows up to five stories of wood framed construction over a concrete podium, which in the case of the Fuse 47 structure would be a two-level podium. This type of construction is relatively new and only permissible after the International Building Code increased the height of allowable wood construction for apartment buildings. Once sprinkler systems are in place and all fire separations are complete, such a building is deemed as safe as a building made of non combustible building materials. However, building codes don't concern themselves with the period during construction when a building is deemed unoccupied. In that stage OSHA controls the safety of construction workers which doesn't include teh fire safety of the building itself, even though construction in itself can present a major fire hazard. The fire started around 9am, so construction activity was likely going on in the building in the race to open it on time.
A marketing rendering of the Fuse 47 complex 

During construction the sprinkler system, the fire alarms, and many fire separation devices such as fire rated gypsum board that can create fire-walls, fire doors, firestops in shafts, hydrants and foire-lanes etc. may not be in place, depending of the state of construction. The fire department confirmed that the Fuse 47 sprinkler system was not active at the time.

Baltimore has its own experience with a fire of an unfinished large wood framed building: On the day of the 2015 unrest a multifamily apartment complex,  the Mary Harvin Transformation Center on North Chester Street in East Baltimore went up in flames after it had been topped out to full height. It was  then largely a wood structure without wall paneling, a veritable tinderbox. All four floors were devoured by flames in a brief period of time with only the block walls of the stairways and some steel frames over a partial podium still standing the next day.

The almost complete Fuse 47 complex was much further along than the Harvin Center when it burnt. The fire appears to have started on the fourth floor and spread to the fifth and penetrated the roof in places. The complex forms a courtyard and has a front and rear portion. According to the fire department the fire was stronger in the rear but couldn't be battled from there because there is no street in the rear and whatever fire-lanes there may be planned were apparently not accessible. One fire engine was stuck in the mud in the back and had to be towed out.
Destruction and flames before the paint was dry

Even if an evaluation would show that the fire was contained on the top two floors and consumed only parts of those floors, damage would extend to the entire structure due to the vast amounts of water that were poured onto it over the full length for at least 12 hours with hot spot dousing for another 12 hours. The water would have destroyed all gypsum board used on walls and ceilings on all levels and, if the wall studs are indeed, wood, potentially also the structure itself. Naturally, water would also have destroyed all finishes and built ins such as kitchens, appliances and the like. Even portions of the building that may have stayed dry through some miracle would likely be damaged by the heavy smoke that emanated from the fire. and was wafting everywhere Smoke blankets everything in soot.

According to marketing literature of the Fuse 47 developer, Wood Partners, the 270 apartment complex featured many amenities:
Fuse 47 offers a resort-style pool, outdoor grilling stations, a bocce court, a state-of-the-art fitness center with the latest CrossFit®-inspired equipment and more. The community includes 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom market rate apartments in a variety of floor plans that provide residents with the option to choose layouts based upon their preferences. All units are equipped with luxury conveniences and finishes.
Problems with fire access from the rear
The five over one building type has spread like a wildfire across North America as soon as it was permitted and has become the building type of choice not only in suburban town-center settings such as in the area around Columbia Mall but also in the downtowns of many cities.
Wood-frame construction is a cost-effective option for mid-rise structures because it allows high density (five stories for many residential occupancy groups, six for office) at relatively low cost, while providing other benefits such as construction speed, structural performance, design versatility and a sustainable, low-carbon footprint. (Wood Products Council)
The fast growing areas of Denver, Austin, San Diego and Seattle have whole neighborhoods with block after block built from the currently popular mixed use formula which has retail and amenities below the concrete deck (the podium) and apartments or condos over top. Several spectacular fires that have  ensued during construction might make fire officials look at this popular construction type again. At a minimum it should make owners and developer consider catastrophic loss during construction. One month ago a massive eight alarm fire reduced a wood structure in the Overland Park area of Kansas City dubbed CityPlace to rubble while construction work went on in it. In February, a luxury apartment building under construction in Maplewood, N.J., was consumed by fire. In downtown Raleigh, N.C., firefighters scrambled to douse a raging apartment fire there March 17 that put surrounding properties at risk.

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article140556573.html#storylink=cpy
Last Monday, a half-constructed wood-framed apartment building at CityPlace in Overland Park was set on fire accidentally by a welding torch. The blaze rapidly turned into an inferno, flattening the building and spreading burning cinders onto the roofs of nearby homes.
“It’s almost a building with toothpicks — that’s what it is,” said Kevin Flory, president of the Kansas State Firefighters Association, about the multifamily wooden structures. “It’s a lot of fire load in there.”
The Overland Park fire was the third huge under-construction apartment blaze around the country since February. (Kansas City Star)



Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article140556573.html#storylink=cpy
The damage at Fuse 47 is currently estimated to reach $40 million, the costliest fire Prince George's County ever had. This type of construction, known in the trade as IIB is not allowed in the Baltimore downtown  fire district that was created after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. However, new mixed use apartment buildings near downtown such as on Charles and Preston, Light Street or in Sharp Leadenhall have employed this construction type.
Southpark LA, , five stories of wood on a two story podium.

Fuse 47 is part of a major rebirth of College Park with a new Whole Foods market, two new major hotels and a new Amazon bookstore on the University of Maryland campus which itself has grown by leaps and bounds during the last decade.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also a more extensive article about One Plus Five on my Blog Community Architect