Architects Group Studying Avalon fire

APRIL 1, 2015    LAST UPDATED: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 1, 2015, 1:21 AM

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The New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects has formed a task force to review possible improvements to design practices and building code standards in response to the fire that destroyed an apartment complex in Edgewater.

The six-member task force hopes to educate both the public and New Jersey lawmakers about lightweight wood-framed buildings and propose recommendations to enhance safety standards in existing building codes, said Justin Mihalik, the chapter’s president-elect.

“We decided to form this as a result of the increased questions we received after Avalon,” Mihalik said, referring to a five-alarm fire that destroyed more than 400 apartments in the Avalon at Edgewater complex on River Road on Jan. 21, displacing hundreds of residents. “Our goal is to educate the public and our legislators, and to promote the value of architecture in general.”

Officials said the Edgewater complex was built using a style of wood framing in which the roof and floor support systems are constructed using lightweight prefabricated materials. The method is a cheaper and legal style of building that is common in New Jersey and across the United States.

Educational documents

The task force is taking a multi-pronged approach, Mihalik said. Its members first hope to educate people about what different construction approaches encompass light-frame construction, and then transition into looking at how it can be safer in the aftermath of the Avalon fire.

In addition to Mihalik, the task force will include William J. Martin, a Westwood-based architect. The other members are David Del Vecchio, Robert M. Longo, Jason Lutz and Yogesh Mistry, all of whom are New Jersey architects.

First the task force will put together a report, or a “white paper,” Mihalik said, that will describe what the building code requires in New Jersey and what protections are currently in place. In addition, the task force would offer suggestions for safety enhancements, Mihalik said.

Parallel to the white paper, Mihalik said the task force hopes to speak to lawmakers on a variety of issues, including the building code, communication among architects, developers and building inspectors, and ways to make light-weight construction safer.

Representatives from the task force have already met with Assemblyman Scott Rumana, R-Wayne, who introduced a bill in February that would impose a moratorium of up to two years on the approval and construction of multiple-unit dwellings using light-frame construction.

Mihalik said the bill, as it is currently written, would stop construction not only of buildings using engineered lightweight wood products — like those used in the Avalon complex — but also those featuring wood and steel bar joists, which do not burn as quickly.

A moratorium on all light-frame construction would be detrimental to the economy, Mihalik said, so the task force is hoping to work with Rumana to modify the bill’s wording.

Eyeing improvements

Rumana said Tuesday that the meeting with the task force was productive, and that there could be a need to remove references to some materials commonly used in light-frame construction from the bill.

“Assuming the information they present to me plays out as I expect it to and some different styles of light-frame construction are safe, we are open-minded,” Rumana said. “As long as we move away from engineered wood products like those used in the Avalon complex.”

Martin, the Westwood-based architect named to the task force, said he looks forward to examining the building code and coming up with possible improvements.

He said that could potentially include increasing the amount of time that fire barrier walls are required to withstand heat. Typically the barriers are coated with fire-rated gypsum board, a specialized material that reacts chemically when it is burned and releases small amounts of moisture that delays the spread of a fire.

“We want to look at anything that we can improve,” Martin said. “The end product with all of this is to hopefully assist policymakers in adjusting the code and hopefully allow for the construction of safer buildings.”

Email: wyrich@northjersey.com Twitter: @AndrewWyrich

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