As a result of the AvalonBay fire in Edgewater, I was interviewed by PIX 11 news and Al Jazeera America as a representative of AIANJ, for the Architect’s perspective on lightweight wood construction materials. Architects understand that the building code takes into consideration the use group of a building as well as the construction type of materials in order to determine how then to protect the materials being used in order to meet a minimum standard and to be considered “safe”. But what is the public’s perception of “safe”? After all, as Architects, it is our responsibility to design “safe” buildings. In watching many Youtube videos and reading white papers on the subject of lightweight construction as I prepared for the interview, I found that the public’s perception of engineered lightweight materials, mainly wood I-joists, is that they are “cheap”.
There are a few reasons for this that I can understand from a lay person’s perspective. One being that the material used for the web of the I-joist, which is oriented strand board or OSB, appears to be a cheap wafer board. A second one is that after a fire, not much of a structure built with these materials is still standing. Being interviewed at the AvalonBay site, it did not take an experienced eye to see that the stair towers and elevator shafts that were constructed of masonry concrete block were the only structures standing amongst a sea of wood debris. It was clear to the eye that the masonry concrete block was far superior to the wood because it had survived the fire.
Architects also understand that the building code does not require the building to fully withstand a fire but only that it withstands the fire long enough for its occupants to escape in a safe manner. The public does not understand that this is in fact the way the building code works. It is up to the Architect and the owner of the building to design it in such a way that it potentially can withstand a fire and the effects of fighting the fire in order to minimize the reconstruction. So is the public wrong for having the perception that engineered lightweight wood materials are cheap? Or is it the industry’s fault for allowing this perception to exist?
There is one other party that should be involved in this conversation and that is the insurance industry since they are making the payouts on policies to then reconstruct these buildings. Fortunately, no lives were lost in the AvalonBay fire. So do we then believe that the building code was sufficient?
Any Architect that has been involved in repairing/reconstructing a building after a fire understands that it is a liability nightmare and that the best approach for the owner is to rebuild the structure. Rebuilding instead of repairing should not be a problem since the insurance policy covers for the “replacement value”. Well, anyone who has worked on a fire job also knows that the term “replacement value” is vague and does not guarantee that this “value” will in fact cover the full cost of the reconstruction. A question for Architects to consider is the following: how sustainable or resilient are the current practices in constructing single or multi-family buildings if they cannot withstand a fire?
Recently legislation was proposed by Republican Assemblyman Scott T. Rumana, bill A4195 (http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2014/Bills/A4500/4195_I1.HTM), and if approved it would impose a two year moratorium on the use of lightweight construction materials in multi-family buildings. The proposed bill not only includes engineered wood, but also traditional nominal wood and steel bar joists. If approved, this bill would be devastating to the construction industry and would affect not only job creation, the housing market, but also architectural firms. Safety is ultimately the most important issue when it comes to buildings. Does this bill take this too far?