Lightweight construction called into question after a police captain and his family die in house fire

Blog Post created by freddurso Employee on Jul 16, 2012

Lightweight construction
It was a tragedy that saddened an entire New York community, and reignited a nationwide debate.

In May, an early-morning fire ripped through the two-story home of Thomas Sullivan, a captain with the Larchmont Police Department. His son, Thomas Jr., awoke to the screams of his father and managed to escape, but Sullivan; his wife, Donna; and his two daughters, Megan and Mairead, all died in the blaze that decimated their unsprinklered home in Carmel, New York, according to a CBS affiliate.

The incident has once again prompted a debate on popular, lightweight construction used in newer homes that homebuilders say have superior qualities over conventional building materials. What's causing concern, however, is the rapid rate at which these materials seem to burn.

An NFPA Journal feature story underscores these concerns and related findings from separate studies by Underwriters Laboratories and the National Research Council of Canada.

"In recent decades, an expanding range of construction methods and building products...often termed 'lightweight construction' have been widely embraced by residential builders for their ability to deliver economy and functionality," says the story's author Alan R. Earls. "However, findings [from both reports]  confirmed what firefighters have long suspected about what happens to lightweight construction when it is exposed to fire. In repeated tests by both groups, under carefully controlled conditions, lightweight structures were found to burn faster and lose their structural integrity quicker—in some cases much quicker—than those built with dimensional lumber, with obvious ramifications for the fire service and for anyone who lives in a residence constructed with lightweight materials."

A new discussion group on the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition's LinkedIn page is currently weighing in on this topic and how home fire sprinklers can assist in safeguarding lives and property. (Sign up for a LinkedIn account if you haven't already to join the discussion.) For additional information on the benefits of home fire sprinklers, visit NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative site.

-Fred Durso, Jr.