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Some fire-safety experts question lightweight wood construction

It’s hard to miss the raw material forming the skeletons of new apartment buildings going up around Charlotte: wood.

Lightweight construction materials – beams formed of wood fibers and wooden floor assemblies built in factories – allow for faster, easier construction, advocates say.

But there’s a potential downside: Some experts say these materials burn faster than traditional lumber and can collapse more quickly in a fire, endangering firefighters.

The Charlotte Fire Department inspects new apartment projects when they are under construction, and officials say that mandatory sprinklers protect residents and the department’s personnel.

“We’re equipped, we’re trained, and we’re aware of the hazards,” said Rob Kinniburgh, the Charlotte Fire Department’s fire marshal.

Wood construction advocates say their buildings must meet the same fire and safety codes as any other building before they’re occupied.

A lawmaker in New Jersey has called for changes to that state’s building code, including stricter sprinkler requirements, after a massive apartment fire in January displaced hundreds.

In North Carolina, sprinklers have been required in all apartment buildings constructed under state building codes since 2006, said Kerry Hall, a spokeswoman for the state insurance department. Earlier codes had requirements based on height or number of units.

“The sprinkler systems make this a viable environment and protect the firefighters and the people in the buildings,” said Jonathan Leonard, the Charlotte Fire Department’s deputy fire marshal.

Apartment developers point out that mid-rise apartments have always been built from wood, and lightweight construction techniques aren’t new. Lightweight trusses joined with metal plates were introduced in the 1950s.

Resident behavior – such as smoking inside, use of grills and unsafe cooking – is a much bigger risk to buildings and residents than any construction technique, said Kirk Grundahl, executive director of the Structural Building Components Association, a trade group.

“We shouldn’t lose sight of that and castigate a construction method that’s benign,” Grundahl said.

Wood more cost-effective

There’s a simple reason wood is popular with apartment developers: It costs less than steel and concrete.

And there’s a reason most of Charlotte’s new apartments are roughly the same height: For fire safety purposes, the state building code limits wood-framed apartments to four floors, unless they’re atop a parking garage. Apartments built of steel and other noncombustible materials can go much higher.

Some of Charlotte’s biggest apartment developers said wood is more cost-effective to build with, and the inclusion of sprinkler systems and other safety measures such as smoke alarms ensures the buildings are safe.

Woodfield Investments is building five new apartment buildings in Charlotte. All but one are mid-rise buildings that use wood.

The exception is The Encore SouthPark, an eight-story building atop three levels of below-ground parking. Woodfield is using steel and concrete for the 280-unit building, which is too tall for wood framing. But that comes with added cost, said Chad Hagler, who oversees apartment development in Charlotte for Woodfield.

“It really takes much higher rents to justify the cost,” Hagler said. “Wood is the most cost-efficient way to construct a building, within certain limitations.”

He said that with sprinkler systems and other life-safety measures required by codes, wood-framed buildings are safe.

Crescent Communities is building apartments in growing areas such as Dilworth and SouthPark. Unlike its high-rise office tower and hotel planned on South Tryon uptown, all of Crescent’s mid-rise apartment projects use wood, Senior Vice President Ben Collins said.

“We’re trying to provide product to consumers at a price point that is attractive to them, and wood allows us to achieve that,” Collins said. He said required safety systems such as sprinklers ensure the buildings aren’t dangerous.

“The buildings we’re building today are as safe as, if not much safer than, any that have been built,” Collins said.

One state examines tougher standards

Wood-framed buildings must meet fire codes and must install all the sprinklers, fire detection systems and fire safety measures local jurisdictions require, said Ken Willette, division manager of the National Fire Protection Association.

But the NFPA has warned firefighters that buildings made with trusses and engineered wood could fail and collapse more quickly than other types of buildings in a fire, Willette said. If part of a truss – a web of smaller wood pieces held in place with metal – fails, the rest can go quickly.

“With trusses, it depends on the entire assembly being intact to carry the load,” Willette said. “We’ve heard those concerns from fire services across the country.”

In recent years, the issue of lightweight construction materials posing a collapse threat in a fire has come before the North Carolina Building Code Council, said Hall, the insurance department spokeswoman. That has led to proposals related to residential homes – but not apartments. No proposals have been approved.

For example, in 2010, the international code that serves as the basis for the state code added a requirement for sprinklers in homes, but the council removed the provision, Hall said.

The council’s chairman, Raleigh homebuilder Dan Tingen, said the panel must weigh fire safety with the thousands of additional dollars that new regulations add to the price of homes. This affects consumers because builders pass the increased cost on to homebuyers, Tingen said.

The risk of lightweight construction gained national attention in January when officials blamed the materials for helping fuel an apartment fire in Edgewater, N.J. The spectacular blaze, which could be seen across the Hudson River in Manhattan, displaced hundreds of residents.

A lawmaker in New Jersey introduced a bill this month to add new requirements to the state building code, including limits on height based on sprinkler type and requirements for more separation or firewalls between units.

Chris Noles of North Carolina’s state fire marshal office said the proposals in New Jersey are “cutting edge” and go beyond what’s in North Carolina’s building code. Any such changes in North Carolina, he said, likely wouldn’t be considered until 2018 or later, when the next round of changes is set to be taken up by the state building code council.

Apartment tip: Insure your stuff

Newly built apartments in Charlotte are required to have sprinkler systems, but those sprinklers are typically designed to give renters enough time to escape the building, not save the whole structure. That means you could make it out of an apartment fire but still lose your possessions.

Experts say you should buy renters insurance so your possessions are covered against losses from events such as fire, smoke, theft and explosion. The destruction of your personal possessions is usually not covered by your landlord’s insurance.

The average cost of a policy in North Carolina is $134 per year, compared with the national average of $187 per year, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Ely Portillo and Rick Rothacker

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