AIA New Jersey Creates Task Force on Lightweight Wood-Framed Construction



TRENTON, N.J. (March 2015) — In the aftermath of the Avalon Edgewater Building Fire, the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-NJ) has announced the formation of a task force of member architects to review possible improvements to design practices and building codes and standards in order to enhance building safety in New Jersey.

The Task Force will examine various issues specific to lightweight wood-framed buildings and make recommendations that, if implemented, could reduce property damage, provide additional time for people to reach safety, and allow the fire service more time to effectively address these emergencies.

Justin Mihalik, AIA

Justin Mihalik, AIA

Chaired by Justin A. Mihalik, AIA New Jersey President-elect, the AIA New Jersey Task Force will build upon its standard code advisory processes and conduct these additional meetings to review lightweight wood framing design issues and formulate recommendations to assist New Jersey policymakers in promulgating regulations that will make buildings of this type safer.

“Improving building safety through smarter design has always been a priority of architects,” said Justin A. Mihalik, AIA. “AIA-NJ is prepared to further assist public safety officials in this shared goal with the creation of this task force.”

The Task Force will make advisory recommendations on containment methods and use of lightweight wood-framed construction materials. These recommendations will be formulated into a written report to be presented to official agencies with the intent of improving building safety in the Garden State and around the country. Task force members will include David Del Vecchio, AIA, Robert M. Longo, AIA, Jason Lutz, AIA, William J. Martin, AIA and Yogish Mistry, AIA. The Task force is expected to complete this work in the coming months.

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  • Louis J. Cicchella  On April 6, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    I read the article in the Bergen Record and I am glad this is being addressed. I am both a 33-year active member and ex-Chief of a busy volunteer Fire Dept. and a carpenter who has built dozens of new homes. I realize lightweight is here to stay so to circumvent all its shortcomings, lets not re-invent the wheel. I just want to say Concrete block firewalls from footing up through the roof. They worked for years so why did we discontinue them? I have seen fire blow through the tiniest of holes in block and when the fire is out, the holes remain the same size. I’m sure you know that would not happen with a drywall partition. Stairwells are block for a reason and so should be firewalls. They construct perfect samples in test labs that perform OK but they are not built perfect in the field. Tiny holes lead to very large ones very quickly. I don’t want to take up a lot of space in the blog but I would be more than happy to sit down with someone and have an in-depth discussion from my perspective. Sincerely, Ex-Chief Lou Cicchella.

  • Susan Jefferies  On April 10, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Justin to serve the public better, please tell us something about each architect that has joined the task force. An important question to answer is how financially dependent each member is on any aspect of the lightweight wood and/or lightweight steel industry – either through design preference, customer base or some other relationship. I think that everyone would like to know that an important task force of this kind has integrity and in order for integrity to be assured, differing opinions and ways of thinking about materials, construction and design need to be represented.

    I suppose that I am led to ask this question because, having seen you interviewed, I am aware that your practice makes substantial use of these materials. Know that I appreciate your honesty in saying so, so soon after the devastating fire in Edgewater, NJ., as well as, your efforts to explore this issue further. My intention in responding to this post is simply to gather information.

    Respectfully – Susan

    • jamihalik  On April 10, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      Susan, thank you for your comments and concern. Our Taskforce is made up of several AIA members who range from small to larger firms, residential to commercial work, and by no means have a bias for or against lightweight construction materials. Two of the members are Committee Chairpersons of our Codes & Standards and Legislative & Government Affairs Committees. Collectively the members of the Taskforce have a very well rounded expertise on the subject, but most importantly an understanding of what is required by the building code when using these materials.

      You will be hard pressed to find an Architect in the State who has not used lightweight construction materials on a project. Frankly, the majority of all construction in NJ uses lightweight construction materials, whether wood or steel.

      As stated in the press release, our goal is to formulate recommendations in order to improve the safety when using these materials as well as other potential improvements that do not relate to the materials, for example commercial grade sprinklers.

      Justin A. Mihalik, AIA

      • Susan Jefferies  On April 11, 2015 at 12:22 pm

        Louis, as a carpenter and ex-Fire Chief, it was interesting to read your comments. Do you know whether there is agreement among firefighters in the state about whether these building materials should be banned or whether there are reliable ways to make them safe? I have read stories about major fires that support your comment about things not being done “perfect in the field” leading to poor, or non-performance, of the fire mitigation systems that were in place.

        Do you know the names of the firefighters who are, or the organization of firefighters that is, working on this issue at the state level? As a member of a citizens’ watch group I’d be interested to learn more about their thinking, as we also look forward to learning more from the architects. Our group has done a lot of research, but talking to professionals who design and build these buildings as well as those who fight the fires in them is very valuable.

        Thanks for you participation in the conversation.

  • Susan Jefferies  On April 11, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks Justin for your thoughtful reply. As you begin your work I hope that you will first take a fresh look at whether lightweight construction materials are fundamentally safe. As you likely know there are experts in the field who do not believe that they are, especially for large projects and/or projects constructed in areas of high population and/or building density. I think the stakes are too high not to revisit this basic question. If the task force deems lightweight materials to be fundamentally safe then taking a look at the code and other areas for improvement makes sense – at least to me.

    Having said this I certainly understand anyone’s concern about loss of income, or a potential threat to the economy, but I don’t think that we can knowingly gamble with people’s lives.

  • Louis J. Cicchella  On April 16, 2015 at 7:29 am

    Justin, among firefighters, i don’t believe there is an overall agreement on lightweight construction. some would like to see it banned for multifamily units. i am a realist and know that won’t happen so we need to make it as safe as possible. the only ways to really make it safe are like i said, better firewalls (no shaftwall or wood/drywall) and full blown NFPA 13 sprinkler systems. we need to shrink down the compartment size between firewalls to a more manageable size. i will make some inquiries as to who is working on our side of this equation.

  • Louis J. Cicchella  On April 24, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    Justin & Susan, the person you should talk to is Paul Dansbach. He is a code official as well as a fire instructor who has been involved in this issue since day one. he also teaches a class on lightweight construction to the fire service. Send me an email and i will give you his number.


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