Reports Indicate Millennium Tower Fire Hazard

MONDAY, JULY 17, 2017

A sinking San Francisco tower may also contain yet another hazard, reports indicate.

The Millennium Tower—which is already dealing with an ongoing sinking issue—also has gaps in the walls of at least one unit, according to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit. Left unrepaired, these gaps are a fire hazard; a fire that starts in the unit below could spread upward, with a high chance of smoke damage.

Pretlow’s Unit

In late 2016, the tower’s housing association hired firm Allana, Buick and Bers to inspect resident Paula Pretlow’s unit, as she and several other residents had complained of “unexplained odors permeating their luxury units," reported the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit.

To address this concern, holes were burrowed through the walls of Pretlow’s unit, with smoke bombs set off below. What resulted was smoke coming up through holes surrounding pipes and ducts. According to Business Insider, these gaps are normally filled with fire-resistant caulking. This treatment helps prevent a fire on one floor from spreading to another.

Retired San Francisco fire captain John Darmanin informed the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit that the developer should have ensured that all gaps were protected. The city inspectors, however, should have also checked for the safety measure while the tower was still under construction.

The most recent investigation has only involved Pretlow’s unit, but others may also have the same issue, notes Business Insider.

"Did someone have a bad day that day? Let's hope," Darmanin said. "But if there are other units that are complaining of odors, and no one is investigating because they are afraid of what they might find out? I have a real problem with that if I'm a tenant or if I'm in the fire department."

According to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, high-rise fire safety expert Armin Wolski shares Darmanin’s opinion. “We hope it that is not systematic, that’s why I would be concerned,” he said. Wolski advises designers of high rises on adherence to fire safety regulations.

Tower Safety

While sprinklers should sufficiently contain fires that occur in high rises, unsealed floor openings could be problematic in allowing a fire to get up to the next floor, or cause smoke damage.

An investigation conducted by the city in January concluded that the tower is safe to live in, but the fact remains: the structure is still sinking at a rate of two inches per year, double what was originally estimated by engineers, according to The Associated Press.

“I wouldn’t live in fear, I wouldn’t move out,” he said, “but I would want the management of the building to look into this and see if this was a widespread issue that wasn’t checked during the process of construction.”

In addition to the gaps, there are also some units where engineers boosted the air pressure to deal with the odor problem. Factoring this in to the tower’s pressurized stairwells—which are designed to keep smoke out for people to be able to escape safely—the stairwells can be undermined as a result. Darmanin noted that, personally, he would want to know that whatever engineers tweaked to solve one problem did not cause another in the stairwells.

Ongoing Odors

As it stands, according to NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, Pretlow is still waiting for someone to repair what is causing the odor issue. The test crew did seal up the walls of her unit, but did not fill gaps with the necessary fire-rated caulking. On top of this, the ongoing odor issue has become part of the current legal battle.

During the inspection conducted in late 2016, inspectors discovered unsealed gaps around pipes on three different levels in the basement of the building. William Strawn, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Building Inspection, told the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit that floor openings were checked by the proper officials during construction. If any unsealed pipes were discovered, the issue would have been addressed in the permit process.

In light of Darmanin’s comments, Pretlow wants city officials to step in and ensure that every unit is being checked.

“I’ve always been concerned,” she said, “and to have an expert confirm some of my fears, it’s scary, frankly.”

Sinking Tower Saga

The luxury condominium skyscraper has sunk 16 inches and tilted 2 inches to the northwest since it was completed in 2009, which is yet another factor in the lawsuit the homeowners’ association has issued against the building developers.

The tower’s foundation is not anchored to bedrock—piles driven 60-80 feet into landfill are what supports the tower. Engineers hired by the developer have drilled into the soil to determine if the building has in fact stopped sinking, and if there is a way to remedy what has occurred.

Jerry Dodson, both a resident of the tower and a lawyer handling the lawsuit for the homeowners’ association, alleges that the developer has implied to tenants that the sinking is slowing and eventually stopping.

The tower was completed at a cost of $350 million.


Tagged categories: Condominiums/High-Rise Residential; Fire; Fire-resistive coatings; Health and safety; Maintenance + Renovation; North America

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