If a campaign by the concrete industry succeeds, dealers supplying multifamily projects could be selling less framing lumber.

Prompted by high-profile fires like the January 2015 one at an Avalon apartment complex in Edgewater, N.J., that destroyed 240 units, the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA), through an affiliate called “Build With Strength” (BWS), is lobbying states and local jurisdictions to restrict the use of wood framing in multifamily structures.

BWS helped kill a Washington state bill that would have made tax incentives available for CLT construction and got behind a successful effort in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, which voted last August to ban combustible light framing in buildings of more than three stories and with more than 100,000 square feet of floor area.

New Jersey state legislator Scott Rumana submitted a bill shortly after the Edgewater fire that would have banned i-joists in new multifamily homes. It didn’t pass. And in Maryland, a legislative effort that BWS backed failed two years in a row, thanks in part to a counter-effort by the American Wood Council (AWC).

The concrete industry has cited damaging fires in multifamily buildings to decry the use of wood framing, but the wood industry is hitting back with safety recommendations of its own.
iStock The concrete industry has cited damaging fires in multifamily buildings to decry the use of wood framing, but the wood industry is hitting back with safety recommendations of its own.

Does Wood Work?
AWC Northeast Regional Manager Matthew Hunter says that most large-scale multifamily fires happen during construction, before the sprinkler systems are turned on, and that builders aren’t following fire protection protocols. “Most construction fires are completely preventable,” he says. “Unfortunately, some code officials haven’t been enforcing existing regulations about fire watches and sprinklers.”

He adds that while the 2015 Edgewater fire was in an occupied building, it was sparked by a plumber’s torch; further, maintenance workers spent more than a half-hour trying to put it out themselves before calling 911. Hunter says AWC is addressing this by including fire protection information in its regular presentations to code officials. It is also directing officials to its fire protection website, constructionfiresafetypractices.com.

Wood supporters also claim that the concrete industry ignores the many benefits of wood framing, including its affordability and the fact that most construction workers know how to work with it. And they insist that concrete construction would make housing unattainable for low-income buyers.

“In a multifamily building, using concrete rather than wood framing could raise construction costs by 20%,” says Judi Miller, an Ellicott City, Md., architect who specializes in multifamily work. Concrete supporters say insulated concrete forms (ICFs) are the solution. “We believe that ICF construction would be cost-competitive with wood,” says Lionel LeMay, executive vice president of structures and sustainability with the National Concrete Masonry Association. (We could find no impartial studies on the relative cost of ICF versus wood in multifamily.)

Meanwhile, Build With Strength is sending out news releases every time it hears a multistory building catches fire. It recently put 25 of them on a map with the headline “America Is Burning: Fires of combustible materials are reducing apartment buildings to ashes and putting lives at risk.”

A Call for Code Changes
The real issue may not be wood framing but building and fire codes. Andrew Klein, a Pasco, Wash., fire protection engineer, points out that low-rise multifamily buildings fall under the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 13R requirements, which means they don’t need sprinklers in attics and other void spaces where fires can spread. This leads to the rapid collapse of lightweight trusses. “Requiring sprinklers in those spaces would be a positive step,” he says.

Not surprisingly, fire professionals support tougher code language. One of these is Gaithersburg, Md., Fire Chief Steve Lohr. Although he wrote an op-ed in support of the BWS-supported bills that would have eliminated wood framing in multifamily buildings, he says he’s not against wood framing per se and would be satisfied with code changes.

Besides sprinklers in voids and attic spaces, Lohr would like to see lower permissible height limits for podium construction, which consists of two stories of concrete—usually parking or commercial space—topped with up to five stories of wood framing. “You are now eight stories in air. That’s beyond the reach of the fire department’s aerial ladders, which will only go up to seven stories,” he says.

Lohr also wants large projects, regardless of whether they’re built from wood or concrete, to give more consideration to fire department access. He cites as an example an April 2017 blaze that caused $39 million in damage to apartment building under construction in College Park, Md.

The seven-story structure backed up to a hillside, making that part of the building inaccessible to fire trucks. The building’s inaccessibility was made more problematic by its wide footprint, which included an enclosed central courtyard. “An aerial stream can only reach 115 feet, and that’s with no wind,” says Lohr. “The way the College Park [apartment] was built, the firefighters couldn’t get enough water to the back of the building.”

Hunter says that AWC supports height restrictions and that it backed a proposal during the 2018 code cycle that would have limited heights for buildings with NFPA 13R systems to 60 feet. The proposal didn’t pass, but he expects to see something similar during the 2020 code cycle. Hunter also echoes Lohr’s concern about building access, but says that’s a local issue. “Some jurisdictions do require developers to submit plans to the fire department for comment,” he says.

Promoting Product Safety
High-profile fires have also put a spotlight on engineered framing components like i-joists and trusses. The wood industry has been addressing the problem with flame-retardant i-joists like LP’s FlameBlock, Weyerhauser’s FlakJacket and Boise’s FireBreak HITS.

In St. Louis, CHIC Lumber is buying finger-joined Douglas fir joists made by Mid-Columbia Lumber. The product “is an accepted solution for the fire floor codes that are rapidly being enforced in our market,” CHIC President Adam Hendrix says.

Meanwhile, Lohr and other fire officials plan to discuss ways trusses could be made safer, in the hope of presenting some ideas to manufacturers. “The way wood trusses are built now, they fail almost immediately during a fire,” Lohr says. “But I don’t see why we can’t engineer a better one. For instance, connecting the plates on opposite sides of the truss with a threaded fastener would make a collapse much less likely.”