A massive fire occurred at an AvalonBay apartment complex under construction in Maplewood, New Jersey, earlier this week. According to an online article in the New Jersey Advance Media for NJ.com, officials reported that the fire undid about two years of construction at the site: “Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said about 130 of the units that were mostly completed when the fire broke out sustained only minimal smoke and water damage, and will just need to be refurbished. About 100 units in the back of the development that were still under construction need to be rebuilt from the ground up.”
Two years ago, a fire completely destroyed a 408-unit AvalonBay complex in Edgewater, NJ. Light weight construction was suspected as contributing to the fire’s quick spread. According to an NBC online news story, “One responding fire chief told NBC 4 New York he thought lightweight wood construction was a factor in how quickly the fire spread.” The same apartment building burned to the ground during its construction in 2000.
This week’s fire at the Maplewood complex has generated renewed concerns about the rapid spread of fire in lightweight construction. “There are fresh questions about lightweight wood construction for large apartment complexes following a six-alarm fire in Maplewood over the weekend,” stated a CBS New York report.
Whatever the cause of the fire and its spread, there are measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of fire in buildings under construction, which are specified in NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration and Demolition Operations. While NFPA 241 has been a lesser known standard, its adoption among jurisdictions is increasing. The City of Boston has adopted NFPA 241 for a number of years. The standard required statewide in Massachusetts through its adoption of NFPA 1, Fire Code , where NFPA 241 is referenced.
The requirements of NFPA 241 provide measures for preventing or minimizing fire damage to structures, including those in underground locations, during construction, alteration, or demolition. NFPA 241 addresses temporary construction equipment and storage; processes and hazards such as hot work, waste disposal, and explosive materials; utilities; fire protection; and safeguarding construction and alteration, roofing, demolition, and underground operations.
The standard also requires that the owner designate a person who shall be responsible for the fire prevention program and who shall ensure that it is carried out to completion. That fire prevention program manager has the authority to enforce the provisions of this and other applicable fire protection standard and that the fire prevention program manager must have knowledge of the applicable fire protection standards, available fire protection systems, and fire inspection procedures.
The next edition of NFPA 241 could be issued this fall and will contain a new Chapter that will address tall timber structures, a new genre of construction that is increasing in popularity.
By Allan B. Fraser & Susan McKelvey, NFPA