In my last post, I posed the question, “When do new homes become old homes?” In this post, I continue analyzing the sprinkler opponent’s argument that fire sprinklers need not be required in new homes because new homes are safer from fire than old homes.
People who make this claim point to improved electrical wiring and circuits; updated furnaces and appliances; improved vertical and horizontal fire separations; larger windows, especially provided in basements with bedrooms; and the installation of smoke alarms. It is true that these improvements do help reduce some causes of home fires and some avenues of fire spread. These improvements also help facilitate occupant escape when fire occurs.
However, none of these improvements will suppress a fire in a new home. Moreover, fires can still occur in new homes. Once one does, none of these improvements suppress the rapid fire development associated with the modern built environment.
It must be pointed out that in many ways, new homes are less safe than older homes when it comes to fires. Modern open floor plans allow more rapid spread of heat, smoke, fire gases, and flames throughout a home, and provide more voluminous amounts of oxygen to feed the fire. The increased use of low-mass, lightweight structural components used in modern homes promote fire spread and fail more rapidly when exposed to fire than structural components used in homes of decades past.
Despite a home’s age, increased fire loads and hard-to-control flow paths impact fire dynamics in a way that make home fires less safe for occupants and firefighters. A new home could be built out of concrete and steel with arc-proof wiring, natural heating and cooling, and multiple smoke alarms monitored by an alarm agency. But load up that home with today’s furnishings and provide a couple doors and windows that fail or are opened at an inopportune time, and we have life-threatening fire conditions.
Ironically, many of the improvements often cited by homebuilders, Realtors, and politicians as making new homes safer are now the norm because they have been made part of residential building codes. When introduced, these requirements were also fought by the same group of people for the same reasons. They feared that increased costs related to new code requirements would stifle new home construction and new home sales. And yet, new construction and new home sales continued. Each decade, these new homes are touted as being safer than homes built in previous decades.
Improvements not related to code changes were sometimes an ancillary result of cost-saving building techniques. Why, for example, did balloon-frame construction end in the 1960s? It wasn’t because of code changes or consumer demand. The decreasing availability and increasing cost of two-by-fours adequate enough to construct a two-story-high wall led to the platform-frame style of home construction. It just so happened that platform-frame construction created natural fire stopping between floors. Cost-saving building techniques can just as easily result in less-safe homes when exposed to fire. The most obvious example is the use of lightweight, low-mass engineered wood products primarily used today due to lower construction costs.
Does a home’s construction have any bearing on the sprinkler opponent’s claim that “more fire deaths and injuries occur in older homes than new ones?” Is this not simply because there are more “old homes” in our nation than “new homes?” It would be an interesting, albeit nearly impossible, study to evaluate the percentage of fire injuries and deaths per the age of homes available. I am not sure it would be possible to know how many homes built in each decade are currently available in the nation’s housing stock. In fact, I am not sure we can track the number of fire incidents, fire deaths, or injuries occurring in homes built in each decade. Perhaps the “year of construction” should be a required field in the National Fire Incident Reporting System.
Which takes me back to the original question: When does a new home become an old home? This question leads us to the most important question of them all: When are we going to start installing home fire sprinklers in new homes before they become unprotected old homes?