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Creating Defenses Against Fire

February 3, 2012

From the NYTimes

The mayor of Stamford, Michael Pavia, said on Monday that the fire was believed to be accidental, but that the precise cause had not been determined. It remained unclear whether the house had smoke detectors.

Responding to reports that embers from a fireplace may have sparked the blaze, Chief Conte said the city fire marshal’s office had not completed its investigation or revealed the cause of the fire to him.

“I heard it was a Christmas tree, I heard a million things,” Chief Conte said. “According to the fire marshal, this investigation could go on for six months. They have five fatalities; they have to do everything the right way.”

My Take:

When a house becomes a place of mortal danger the impact is transcendentally devastating. Akin to child abuse, the fundamental failure of a place of safety to provide refuge from the gravest of fates pulls the rug out from under our assumptions that hearth and home are our safe harbor.

But homeowners can help prevent tragedies like the one in Stamford with a few simple mindsets:

Any home more than one story tall makes getting out in a fire critical. The house that burned was 3 stories tall, and, like almost all homes in America, built of light frame wood construction – called Type 5 in many building codes. A long way to get out of a quick burning home means timing is everything. And that means smoke detectors in older homes – one in every bedroom, one at both ends of every hallway, one in every stair well – and in the attic and basement.

But if you build or create a 3 story house made of 2x framing, most building codes now require either 2 easy-to-use staircases directly to grade, or a fire suppression system of sprinklers – at least in hallways and stairs. Retrofitting stairs and sprinklers are much more costly that smoke detectors, but detectors are more important – saving lives trumps saving property every time.

Homes built before modern building codes (like the one in CT) often do not have barriers built into walls that suppress fire from spreading – blocking air/flame from invisibly firing up thru the wall cavities, making ceilings absorb heat with fire-rated sheet rock and having garages and mechanical rooms (where there combustion occurs on purpose) sealed from the rest of your home. Adding sheet rock, fire rated doors and fire-stopping is required by most towns in many renovations like the one the home in Connecticut had just finished, but the level of code-compliance retrofit beyond the “grandfathered-in” status is often a judgment call by the local officials and builder involved.

Additionally, homes built before modern building codes can have two stairs, great fire separations and smoke detectors, but can still be unsafe in a panic situation. The actual dimensions of the stairs’ risers and treads can be too steep, diagonal corner treads can be too narrow, railings can be missing or open at their ends and grab clothing, hallways can be too narrow, floors can have little level changes lighting can be spotty or missing – so those fleeing the fire can have their own home cause a trip and fall death sentence.

When a home is occupied while construction is ongoing, or even small bits of the project await finalization while the vast majority of work is done, the opportunities for fire, falling and toxic byproducts causing illness abound.

If you only see the downside of any situation you might not get out of bed in the morning, let alone buy an antique house and undergo a full-on remodeling – but life is a series of risk-reward judgments – and in most things domestic, if you know the dangers and have good advice of experienced professionals you can narrow the window of vulnerability, and mitigate danger in the place you should feel safest – home sweet home.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Eileen Banisch permalink
    February 3, 2012 10:15 am

    Great article, Duo – as always. We should all take a few minutes every year to go over escape routes with family members from EVERY room in your house (much like the fire drills we practiced in school as children), including attics and basements.

  2. tim mccarthy permalink
    February 3, 2012 11:13 am

    great article … Tragic situation. …presumably, as you said, without blocking, fire separations and sprinklers that house was a collection of hundreds even thousands of chimneys of different sizes. All those chimneys (likely) lined with extremely dry lath and light wood framing. This is one reason I strongly lean towards single story plans with bedroom windows approaching the size and operation of doors. You know this already but this type of plan helps provide a redundancy/safety factor for the possible failure in other over time much can happen to the alarm/smoke detector situation..and who knows how often people do fire drills. Of course the plan can be altered over time, but a project that size will fall under a review of sorts or even be designed professionally. Architecturally..its nice to have two floors for creative opportunities and economy in reduced foundation and heat loss but…these benifits pale in comparison to extremely fast, simple and multiple exit options.

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