Watching a fire engulf hundreds of apartments under construction in downtown Raleigh last week, it was hard to miss one similarity to most of the new apartment buildings in Charlotte: The structure was made mostly from wood.
The Raleigh fire completely destroyed the five-story, $51 million building in downtown Raleigh, and the heat and flames severely damaged nearby buildings. And on Monday, a similar apartment building under construction near Kansas City caught fire, heavily damaging the building and burning down more than a dozen nearby homes.
And if you look around Charlotte, you’ll see thousands of new apartments in various stages of construction, many of them following the same basic layout: Four or five stories of wood-framed buildings, wrapped around or perched atop a parking deck.
The two fires in the past week – along with spectacular blazes in New Jersey in February and Los Angeles in 2014 – have renewed questions about the safety of wood-framed apartment buildings. It’s a particular concern while they’re under construction and before firewalls, Sheetrock and sprinkler systems are installed.
And while catastrophic fires are relatively rare, the rising popularity of wood-framed construction and the building of massive new apartment buildings in dense, urban areas, close to other structures, means such fires have potentially bigger consequences.
“Within about a two-month period we’ve had a fire like this in New Jersey, Raleigh and now this one in Kansas,” said Robert Solomon, division manager for building and life safety code at the National Fire Protection Association, which develops fire safety codes and standards. “The frequency is a little bit unnerving to people.”
The building codes in North Carolina and other states include standards around construction safety, and the NFPA plans a push to make sure building owners and contractors are following these requirements, Solomon said. These include having a fire safety plan, regulating combustible liquids and keeping building sites secure, he said.
“In general, there are a number of precautions that everyone should be taking during these construction projects,” Solomon said.
As the Observer highlighted in a 2015 story, developers have gravitated towards wood-framed construction in the thousands of new apartment buildings they’re putting up in Charlotte. Wood is a popular building material with apartment developers because it costs less than steel and concrete. Lightweight construction materials – beams formed of wood fibers and wooden floor assemblies built in factories – also allow for faster, easier construction, advocates say.
Some experts say these materials burn faster than traditional lumber and can collapse more quickly in a fire, endangering firefighters. But wood construction advocates say their buildings must meet the same fire and safety codes as any other building before they’re occupied.
The Charlotte Fire Department has said it inspects new apartment projects when they are under construction, and officials say that mandatory sprinklers protect residents and the department’s personnel. A Fire Department official said Tuesday the department isn’t considering any changes to its inspection or other safety protocols at apartment construction sites in light of the Raleigh fire, but added that the fire is a “wake-up call” that will cause the department’s new construction team to watch such projects more closely. Raleigh fire officials haven’t yet determined the cause of that blaze.
John Huson, CEO of Charlotte-based general contractor Carocon, said new apartment buildings are safer than older ones because of the mandatory sprinklers. His firm has constructed multiple apartment buildings with wood, and he said that once the fire protection measures are installed, the buildings are as safe as they’d be with any other material.
“Once the buildings are Sheetrocked, there’s not much in them that will burn,” he said. “Until the building gets Sheetrocked, it’s a high-rise lumberyard.”
About Raleigh, Huson said, “That was a hell of a fire.”
Concrete and steel advocates – who obviously have a business interest in shifting builders and developers away from wood-framed construction methods – are taking the opportunity to push for legislative and code changes that would limit wood in large buildings. Kevin Lawlor, spokesman for Build With Strength, a concrete and steel-promoting group, said they’re pushing for changes in Maryland, New Jersey, California, Washington and Georgia.
The group is exploring North Carolina, Lawlor said, especially in the wake of the Raleigh fire.
“We’ve been tracking these fires,” said Lawlor. He said developers have “been putting our desire to build quickly and cheaply ahead of building safely.”
Newly built apartments in Charlotte are required to have sprinkler systems, but those sprinklers are typically designed to give renters enough time to escape the building, not save the whole structure. That means you could make it out of an apartment fire but still lose your possessions.
Experts say you should buy renters insurance so your possessions are covered against losses from events such as fire, smoke, theft and explosion. The destruction of your personal possessions is usually not covered by your landlord’s insurance.
The Raleigh fire is an example of both how vulnerable apartment buildings can be during construction and how fire protection systems are supposed to work after they’re completed.
The 241-unit Metropolitan apartments were about 40 percent complete, according to the CEO of Chicago-based owner Banner Development. That means that although most of the main structure was in place, the interior safety features meant to blunt a fire’s spread weren’t installed.
“It was just bad luck,” said Banner CEO William Henry. The company plans to rebuild on the site.
“Whatever happened, whether it was set or it was an accident, it was exactly at the right time to maximize damage,” said Jim Anthony, CEO of Collier’s International in Raleigh, another developer of multi-family housing that uses wood-frame construction.
While apartment buildings in Charlotte and elsewhere are a fire risk during construction, occupants should feel safe once construction is complete, said Solomon, of the NFPA. Once a certificate of occupancy is issued, buildings have Sheetrock shielding the wood, sprinklers and automatic alarm systems.
“Once the building is buttoned up, those occupants should feel very safe being in a structure like that,” he said.
The Link apartments, adjacent to the Raleigh building that burned, suffered major heat and smoke damage to the side that faced the Metropolitan, as well as water damage. Charlotte-based Grubb Properties developed the Link, which opened in 2016 and was 94 percent occupied.
As the Metropolitan fire grew, it triggered the sprinklers at the Link building. That kept the building from actually catching fire and allowed the hundreds of residents to evacuate.
“The fire alarms went off, the sprinklers went off, everyone did what they were supposed to and evacuated the building,” Grubb spokeswoman Emily Ethridge said. “Everything worked the way it was supposed to.”
The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed
Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo
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