Fire at New Jersey Construction Site Elicits Calls for Wood Framing Code Changes

photo: Bill Tompkins

Critics blame lightweight, wood-framed construction materials, but they may be jumping the gun.

New Jersey, like many states, faces high demand for rental units. To that end, codes allow construction of multi-story wood-framed structures up to 60 ft. tall. But a blaze that destroyed an apartment complex that was under construction and due to open in March has triggered criticism from academics and locals. They say residential apartments should not be built using non-steel framing.

Here’s how the story was reported in

A roaring blaze tore through an apartment building being constructed in Maplewood by AvalonBay Communities Inc. early Saturday, two years after fire leveled a large AvalonBay complex in Edgewater.

Saturday’s blaze spotlighted safety advocates’ efforts to change the state’s building code to prevent such fires – efforts that have gone nowhere since the Edgewater disaster.

“Why are we waiting?” asked Glenn Corbett of Waldwick, an associate professor of fire safety at John Jay College in New York, who has pushed for a change. “How many have to happen before we change something?

Reality Check

Are the critics right? Our view is that there’s little evidence of increased dangers to life safety with wood-framed buildings. Both of these structures that burned were not completed. They were lacking the crucial fire repression systems that make fires survivable. Notably, they did not include drywall firestops, metal doors or sprinkler systems, that would presumably have been added before completion.

Certainly more care needs to be taken on wood-framed sites, to prevent accumulation of sawdust near lights or equipment, for example, and to evaluate equipment and neutralize high-risk scenarios. Most of these fires tend to happen due to negligence (occasionally arson), when no one is “on guard.” What’s needed is greater diligence and a change of attitude among contractor crews during construction, not a makeover of building codes that encourage the use of renewable materials such as wood.—CW

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