Experts call it a fire crisis. New, lightweight residential
construction methods, green building materials, open floor plans
and larger square footage are making it harder and more dangerous
for firefighters to safely extinguish house blazes and for
occupants to safely escape them.
"It's estimated that most homes built within the past 20 years
contain these dangerous lightweight materials, which are designed
to carry a greater load with less material by using prefabricated
components," says Russell Fleming, president of the National Fire
The lightweight construction materials are more cost-effective
and environmentally friendly, but they allow fires to spread much
more rapidly, reducing the time homeowners have to escape a fire --
and the time firefighters have to safely extinguish it.
Traditionally, floor joists that held up the floor would be a
2x6 piece of lumber every 12 inches, explains Peter Struble,
practitioner in residence in the Fire Science Program at Henry C.
Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the
University of New Haven and the fire chief in Wallingford,
"Now they're using what's called an engineered wood i-joist,
which is much lighter weight and is not as substantial, and a lot
of times it's thin pieces of wood glued together. It's extremely
strong as long as it's not being attacked by fire," says
"When it's attacked by fire, it fails abruptly," he says.
The National Institute of Safety tested traditional wood floor
joists and the engineered i-joist's burning rates. It took 19
minutes for the traditional wood to burn versus six minutes for the
engineered wood i-joist, says Struble.
That spells danger for firefighters, especially with basement
fires. When a firefighter enters a burning residence, the floor may
already be gone or the outside might just be a facade with
everything inside burned away already. With a little bit of weight,
the entire floor collapses and firefighters go down with it.
"Certainly we don't have as much time in the building now;
that's going to impact anyone still left in the home and our
ability to get to them, and certainly it's going to cause more
damage to the home," says Struble.
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Aside from the building materials used in today's homes, other
factors contribute to quicker burn rates including larger square
"Back in the 1960s the average single family home was about
1,200 square feet. It's not unusual to have a home that's now 3,000
to 4,000 square feet," says Struble.
What's more, with open floor plans, all the rage in new home
builds, a blaze spreads more quickly. Couple that with lightweight
building materials and large square footage and firefighters see
early collapses, rapid fire spread and more intense fires than
they've seen in the past 30 years, explains Struble.
Contributing to today's home-fire crisis is the contents of our
"We know that today's contents burn hotter with more BTUs," says
Struble. Many items have a plastic or hydrocarbon base so they burn
more intensely and create more energy.
"Newer plastic fillings in sofas, chairs, and mattresses burn
much faster than older fillings like cotton, reducing the time it
takes for a room to heat to 1,100 degrees and reach flashover --
the temperature point at which the heat in an area is high enough
to ignite all flammable materials," says Fleming.
One reenactment by Underwriters Laboratories built two homes and
set a room full of legacy furniture from the '50s to '70s on fire
along with a room with modern furniture. The legacy furniture
reached flashover in 29.25 minutes; the room with modern
furnishings took 3.25 minutes.
One of the reasons furniture is cheaper today and in greater
quantity than 30 years ago is because manufacturing techniques have
improved. Furniture also contains materials that are economical and
durable that are typically made of plastics and synthetics, which
give off a tremendous amount of heat when they burn.
Making houses safer
Now that firefighters understand how newer-home fires burn, fire
services are working with building officials to strengthen building
and fire codes and to introduce enhancements that will help people
get out of their homes quickly during a fire and help keep fires
Struble says that in the short-term protecting i-joists with
rated sheetrock and having states require a hardwired fire alarm
system -- where working smoke detectors don't depend on someone
changing the battery -- is key, since getting people out of the
house early is crucial. When the fire department knows people are
out, it becomes a property loss problem and not a life loss
The ultimate solution is the installation of residential
sprinklers in new homes. Currently, California and Maryland are the
only states that require fire sprinklers in new home construction,
despite the International Residential Code requiring it in 2009 and
in 2012; and it will appear again in the 2015 code.
The cost of installing a residential sprinkler system in new
construction is $1.61 per square foot nationally.
"While many states have rejected the International Code
Council's requirement for all new one- and two-family homes to
include fire sprinklers, the fact remains that fire sprinkler
systems would offset the danger created by lightweight construction
methods and today's synthetic furnishings, providing greater
protection to building occupants and emergency first-responders,"
The first step is to get sprinkler systems into today's new
homes, which are tomorrow's older homes.