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Building Materials Blamed in Apartment Fire

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

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Materials used in the ongoing construction of an apartment building in College Park, Maryland, have been suspected as a possible cause in a five-alarm fire on April 24 that caused $39 million in damage to the structure.

The fire, which took 200 firefighters to bring under control, has been ruled accidental. A full investigation could take weeks while crews continue to sift through the rubble.

Materials Examined

Prince George’s County fire investigators said the type of construction materials used, which are all permitted by code, were a factor in the difficulty firefighters had extinguishing the blaze. The investigators examined the area of the apartment building where the fire seems to have started.

"Our biggest challenge is access to the building,” Prince George's County Assistant Fire Chief Alan Doubleday said. “It's a lightweight wood truss construction, and a majority of all the fire was in the roof area of the trusses, which immediately started to collapse.

“Once they are loaded excessively by water or exposed to fire is when they have a large potential for collapse."

Crews encountered thick smoke and flames on the fifth and sixth floors, preventing them from battling the fire from the top of the building.

"This is what we call a doughnut-type construction. There is a doughnut hole in the middle, backs up to a residential community, so it has been very difficult to get fire apparatus back in that area," Prince George's County Fire Chief Ben Barksdale said.

Barksdale said there's a courtyard in the middle of the building, which is built into a hillside. That meant there was no vehicle access to the back of the building, which made it difficult to get to burning areas in the rear of the structure.

Changes Needed

Kevin Lawlor, a spokesman for Build With Strength—a group that includes the concrete industry and pushes for tougher building codes—voiced his dismay concerning the construction materials used in the apartment building.

“(The) fire in College Park makes it abundantly clear the need for stronger building codes in Maryland,” said Lawlor, whose group advocates for steel and concrete to be used in structures; instead of the wood materials used on the upper floors in the College Park building.

“Wood-framed structures are not a safe alternative to resilient construction materials like concrete,” Lawlor added. “Unfortunately, the lobbying efforts by the Maryland Building Industry Association and their allies for the use of combustible materials in buildings like this one puts local residents at risk and costs local taxpayers.”

Bills were heard in March by the General Assembly that would have implemented those requirements, but they failed to pass. The building industry argued that lightweight construction materials are safe, cheaper and faster.


Tagged categories: Building Envelope; Building materials; concrete; Construction; Fire; North America; Wood coatings

Comment from John McCormac, (5/3/2017, 10:00 AM)

Hmm. Odd that the wood trusses are blamed for spontaneously combusting. The fire was clearly NOT caused by the wood trusses, but an ignition source was required. This article doesn't address the actual cause of the fire at all. Furthermore, while wood materials may burn more readily, the use of concrete or wood is irrelevant as to why a fire started in the first place. Also, they said they couldn't attack the fire from the roof, but the picture shows quite a few firemen on the roof.

Comment from Douglas Pearce, (5/3/2017, 2:19 PM)

Steel and concrete construction collapses as well. Just look at World Trade Centre 7 which came down in it's own footprint!!!

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