Another apartment building fire fuels NJ debate over lightweight wood construction
There are two things in common between the massive fire that gutted an Edgewater structure in January 2015 and a six-alarm blaze that made headlines in Maplewood earlier this month.
Both incidents occurred at apartment complexes under the AvalonBay umbrella, and both were erected with lightweight wood framing.
The Feb. 4 fire in Maplewood that destroyed much of the under-construction housing development has reignited a debate over the way these types of structures are built and what safety precautions should be in place.
It was a hot issue following the Edgewater fire that left hundreds of families homeless, but that discussion slowly died down, and nothing has changed since, at least officially.
In light of the 2015 blaze, triggered by maintenance work inside a wall, AvalonBay upped their fire protections at the Maplewood project, along with others, including a rebuild at the Edgewater fire site.
But the Virginia-based developer had been following the rules all along. The move to add sprinklers and firewalls was purely voluntary.
The statewide building code permits structures like these to go without sprinklers in unoccupied areas, and firewalls are not required.
"Unfortunately, it all comes down to money, and the people that are making the decisions have not placed absolute fire safety above economics," said Robert Malanga, president of Fire & Risk Engineering in Long Valley.
Malanga said similar fires will continue to occur without some changes to the minimum requirements for structures built with lightweight wood, which is cheaper and easier to transport. But he worries it'll take a major tragedy — one including casualties — to trigger movement on the topic.
No one was killed or seriously injured in the Edgewater or Maplewood incidents.
While building owners and developers are free to install as many fire protections as they see fit, no municipality can force them to adhere to measures that go beyond the state's uniform code, Malanga said.
So the key to change is updating that code, according to Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex. For more than a year now, he's had legislation sitting in Trenton that would implement a more robust sprinkler system in multi-unit construction and set limits on how tall or wide a building can go before fire breaks must be installed.
"I think it is incumbent upon us as policymakers in the state of New Jersey to recognize that fire safety is an important public good that we are able to deliver with some modest changes to the existing regulatory and statutory framework," said Wisniewski, chair of New Jersey's Fire Safety Commission. "It is time that we moved this piece of legislation through committee and on to the floor of the Assembly for consideration by all the members."
Wisniewski said it wouldn't be practical to legislate against the use of lightweight wood construction altogether. It's a staple in the buildup of affordable housing and the construction industry.
Speaking to mayors a couple days after the Maplewood blaze, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, said he's been working with the Department of Community Affairs and other parties to craft an upgrade to the state's current building and fire codes.
"You will see something very, very soon," he said.
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