The crane fell in to a burning ring of fire

Should wood still be used in large apartment buildings?

When a crane falls in Raleigh during the middle of the night, it certainly makes a sound; especially when this noise is coupled with screams and a raging fire that over one hundred fire fighters battled on the night of March 16 of this year.  Soon after the construction site for a new wooden apartment complex went up in flames, the crane came toppling down, knocking down power lines and ripping through a city block.

The fire damaged a number of surrounding buildings, and flaming ash traveled miles from the fire.  Needless to say, the Raleigh fire department was busy.  After the situation cooled down however, questions remained surrounding the source of the fire and the safety of wooden buildings within such a small area.

Since the turn of the 20th century, many large fires which engulfed cities occurred due to human error.

Fire has been the Achilles heel of all organized societies since the dawn of wood built structures.  Many fires back then and now follow the path of other natural disasters such as earthquakes.  Civilization has come a long way since 1871.  Since the turn of the 20th century, many large fires which engulfed cities occurred due to human error.  The term “human error” must be used loosely for it to apply.  Having large industrial zones using highly flammable chemicals close enough to cause immense damage may certainly be deemed erroneous.

The city of Tianjin in China learned this lesson first hand back in 2015 when a chemical warehouse exploded with the force of 21 tons of TNT.  Following the fire, the owners of the warehouse were arrested due to the per se negligent condition of their warehouse.  The fire was so large that the original cause of the fire was unknown, but the law has a special provision for these sorts of situations.  Res ipsa loquitur, or res ipsa by many law students is the idea that without negligence, the accident would not have occurred.  On top of this legal doctrine, dealing with high explosives carries per se negligence if anything goes wrong.  In these situations, one could say it is user beware.

Is building now so inherently dangerous that it’s per-se negligence when something goes wrong?  

Now in Raleigh, there wasn’t a large amount of chemicals or high explosives.  There was simply a new wooden apartment complex that was still in its framing stage.  No insulation, no pipes, no fire resistant materials; just good, old fashioned wood.  As Fire Chief John McGrath told the News and Observer, “Unfortunately, this building is at the stage when it was extremely vulnerable, before sprinkle systems got in, fire resistant walls were put up.”

Is building now so inherently dangerous that it’s per-se negligence when something goes wrong?   This distinction has not been made by law, despite the danger in any type of building which happens whenever the construction is rushed.

These occurrences aren’t necessarily rare in the apartment complex construction industry. 

Raleigh has been bursting at the seams for new buildings and the demand for new apartments grows every year.  This demand has led to a number of new apartment complexes built in record speed.  The problem with the high demand is that it pushes builders to build with wood instead of masonry for framing the building.  This means that construction can happen in a shorter amount of time, but the cost is that the buildings are less durable and are at a greater risk for fires.

Raleigh is not the only city that has seen similar fires recently.  In Kansas City, only four days after the Raleigh blaze, a four-story apartment building—in a very similar stage of construction—also went up in flames causing dozens of houses in the surrounding area to catch fire.  The eight-alarm fire kicked embers to at least 22 homes causing damage.

In January of 2015 in New Jersey a 240-unit apartment building went up in flames during construction causing damage to dozens of surrounding homes.  Needless to say, these occurrences aren’t necessarily rare in the apartment complex construction industry.

In the fire from earlier this month, is concerning how fast the building caught fire, and how large the fire got before it was contained.  The building was going to be a five story apartment complex containing 240 units.  240 units, each containing a stove, a dryer and most likely a hair curler and iron at some point.  At the point of completion, the building would have a sprinkler system to contain any fires; however there is still a risk—especially during construction.

Wood will not last as long as steel and concrete. 

Critics of the new demand-driven building call for the legislature to pass something limiting the building materials available for these complexes to those that are safer and more stable.  This would mean instead of using wood or light materials, apartment complexes over a certain size would require concrete and steel instead of wood.

Where their motives may seem for the “health and safety of the community,” there is definitely a lobbying battle fueled by the steel industry.  Some advocates for concrete and steel have even used this recent fire to gather support for code changes that would limit the amount of wood in large building projects.  Their motive may be for profit, but they have a sound argument.  Wood will not last as long as steel and concrete.  The group claims that this fact along with the much lower fire risk is enough to bring cities up to code.

The other side of the argument is that wood buildings do not just spontaneously combust and can last for hundreds of years.  The danger of today is that during construction there is a higher risk, however once the building is finished, it is completely up to code and as safe as any other building.

There’s still a big risk that cities take in allowing these types of buildings to be built in close proximity to other buildings. 

Where the building may be as “safe” in one regard, the finishing touches to a wooden building may cause more harm than good.  The sprinkler systems are designed to give people more time to escape a burning building however they give a false security to code officers during construction.  Fires can happen at any time, if the only security against these fires is added at the end of construction, there’s still a big risk that cities take in allowing these types of buildings to be built in close proximity to other buildings.

The best example of how the fire system is supposed to work was seen with the neighboring Link apartment building which opened in 2016.  Emily Ethridge, the spokeswoman for the developer of the link property told the Charlotte Observer that “the fire alarms went off, the sprinklers went off, everyone did what they were supposed to and evacuated the building.”

The sprinklers did massive damage to the personal goods of the residents.  However, even steel and concrete buildings contain these sprinklers.  The difference between steel and concrete is that there is a smaller chance of a raging inferno when the materials aren’t the typical fuel for campfires.

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About Cyrus Corbett V, Associate Editor Emeritus (16 Articles)
Cyrus Corbett V is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. He is from Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and received his Bachelors in Arts in Government from Wofford College in 2014. Since July after his first year of law school, Cyrus has interned at the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association in downtown Raleigh focusing on the Retail Merchants Handbook. His interest is in jurisprudence of the law and negotiation/ mediation.
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