Do New Jersey’s building codes need to be reformed in light of massive Edgewater fire?

The massive fire that destroyed the Avalon apartment complex in Edgewater in January has prompted political, industry and civilian action that could change the way builders construct similar types of multi-family, multi-story housing in New Jersey.

For now, the question seems to be how far reforms may go following the Jan. 21 blaze, which destroyed 240 apartments and displaced about 1,000 residents, hundreds permanently.

The discussion is taking place on several levels:

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) last week said he plans to introduce legislation by the end of the month that could at the minimum force builders to provide more stringent fire sprinkler coverage in multi-family buildings like the Avalon at Edgewater.

Earlier this year, Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R- Passaic, Bergen, Essex and Morris)introduced a bill that could lead to a temporary ban on the use of lightweight construction methods – which use pre-fabricated wood structures and are ubiquitous throughout the industry – in multi-family construction also like the Avalon at Edgewater. The lightweight construction method is used in buildings with up to four stories.

The measure says the ban, lasting up to two years, would be imposed if officials evaluate lightweight construction methods and decide they are not  “appropriately safe.”

A citizens group, outraged that the Avalon could burn to the ground while still meeting state codes, is pushing for Rumana’s bill or, in lieu of that, other tougher building and fire safety standards.

The state chapter of the American Institute of Architects also is planning to weigh in with a white paper on recommended code changes to be issued next month.

The Avalon complex in Edgewater was built with fire sprinklers using the National Fire Protection Association’s 13R code, which requires sprinklers for low-rise buildings in rooms and hallways but not closets, many bathrooms and unoccupied spaces between walls and in attics, Prieto said. The system worked as designed, allowing all the residents to escape the fire, which occurred in the afternoon. NFPA 13R standards are not designed to save the structure.

The more extensive NFPA 13 code requires sprinklers in those unoccupied spaces, and likely would have saved the structure, said Prieto, a construction code official. NFPA 13 is designed to provide life safety and property protection.

“We have to start looking at how to protect property also,” he said, saying he would support “going to just a straight (NFPA) 13.”

AvalonBay Communities officials did not comment. Since the Edgewater disaster, the company has said it would build projects in Maplewood and Princeton with the more extensive sprinkler system and masonry firewalls.

Prieto said he’s been meeting with stakeholder groups, including the New Jersey Builders Association, to develop his legislation.

He acknowledged that builders wouldn’t like the more costly NFPA 13 requirement, but he said it could end up being a “plus” for them by protecting property and generating more favorable insurance rates.

The legislation also might address construction techniques that contain fires once they start, Prieto said. New Jersey follows the International Building Code.

In addition to legislation affecting new construction, Prieto said he is looking at a bill to encourage retrofitting existing multi-family, multi-story buildings that have no sprinklers.

“That,” he added, “is a separate conversation.”

Rumana’s bill could prohibit the use of lightweight construction methods in multi-family construction for two years while an alternative building code is developed. The measure says the ban would only be imposed if officials evaluate lightweight construction methods and decide they are not  “appropriately safe”

He did not reply to messages left by NJ Advance Media. The state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees building and fire safety code regulations, had no comment about the proposals.

A group of residents from the Princeton area, concerned about the AvalonBay project to be built on the former University Medical Center site, is lobbying state legislators to move Rumana’s bill out of the assembly’s Housing and Community Development Committee.  What they would really like, said Alexi Assmus of Princeton, is to restrict lightweight wood frame construction.

“These buildings are inherently flammable,” she said, noting that there have been a dozen major fires in similar structures across the country in recent years. Eight of those fires were in buildings under construction, she said.

Recognizing that prohibiting lightweight wood frame construction for multi-family units is unlikely, she said the group also supports the higher standard for fire sprinkler coverage. Additionally, it backs regulations to ensure that fire blocks, which stop the flow of oxygen to fires, are properly installed, robust firewall standards become mandatory and that personnel are on hand to monitor all “hot work,” like the blowtorch work that started the Avalon fire.

The builders association, however, opposes Rumana’s bill. Its president, George Vallone, said the association strongly opposes it.

“Any such proposal would unnecessarily and significantly impede the state’s housing industry and economic recovery,” he said.

The AIA agrees, said Justin Mihalik, president-elect of the chapter. As written, the Rumana bill also threatens construction using steel bar joists, which also is considered lightweight construction and is seen typically in big box stores, he said.

The AIA has a statewide task force that is expected to deliver a white paper next month assessing building standards and fire safety in wood-framed, multi-family buildings, he said.

There are reforms that could be relatively painless for the building industry, Mihalik said. For instance, wood products giant Weyerhaeuser now sells wood joists treated with a fire retardant coating, he said, which could keep the structure stable longer and give firefighters more time to do their job.

The architects group also will look at issues involving sprinkler coverage and the size of buildings designed with lightweight wood frame construction, Mihalik said.

The important thing is to start the conversation about tightening building codes and improving safety, he said.

“We felt that it was important that the public had information from a really neutral position,” Mihalik said.
Tim Darragh may be reached at tdarragh@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @timdarragh. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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