Well, it turns out, you can’t. But this Earth Day, we took a look at what some developers and architects are doing about the increasing risk of bigger storm surges and rising sea levels. While Sandy reminded us how real the risk can be, folks we talked to said the steps to mitigate that risk are just as real.

How Do You Flood-Proof Waterfront Development in NYC?AKRF SVP Linh Do is an environmental scientist and works with city, state and federal agencies on project compliance across the region. She says flood levels in the worst storms are on track to reach 19 feet by the year 2100 (to put that in perspective: the roadway on the upper level of the FDR Drive is 28.5 feet). “We’re not the Netherlands, we’re not Venice. You can’t put up walls and dykes,” Linh says. But you can prevent damage to a building by raising critical infrastructure out of the basement, where it’s not vulnerable in a flood. For new buildings, the city Department of Planning isn’t counting any space above flood level that’s used this way as allowable BSF. An alternative Linh’s seen is totally waterproofing basements on new buildings by creating a “bathtub,” or water-tight foundation, but she says that’s often a lot more expensive.

How Do You Flood-Proof Waterfront Development in NYC?These steps aren’t always mandated, but some property owners are taking steps like these voluntarily, like Douglaston Development’s 1 North 4th Place, a new rental building in Williamsburg. It sits on a peninsula that juts into the East River, and much of the property’s in what FEMA calls a “100 year floodplain,” or an area with at least a 1% chance of flooding in a given year. Douglaston president Steven Charno says they built up the groundleading into the only entrance to the parking garage so it would be above the floodplain.

How Do You Flood-Proof Waterfront Development in NYC?That’s in addition to putting the physical plant and the lowest residential units above flood stage. About a mile away, the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s installing permeable pavement that can absorb some of the water in a storm, and moving existing physical plant infrastructure out of harm’s way. Over in LIC, TF Cornerstone’s 4545 Centre Boulevard put in flood gates and flood panels(shown above) to keep water from getting into the building’s basement.

How Do You Flood-Proof Waterfront Development in NYC?Across the Hudson, J.A. Mihalik’s Justin Mihalik, president-elect of the AIA’s NJ chapter, points out a few strategies for existing buildings. Justin’s one of the leaders in a regional recovery working group tasked with recommending best practices for storm preparedness and resiliency across the tri-state area. Justin says the City of Hoboken’s piloting a program to retrofit underground parking garages to take in water if there’s a flood and hold it until the floodwaters subside.

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 Follow him on Twitter @timdarragh. Find on Facebook.

Architects Group Studying Avalon fire

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


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: Twitter: @AndrewWyrich

Lightweight Construction Materials- is the Public’s Perception wrong?

As a result of the AvalonBay fire in Edgewater, I was interviewed by PIX 11 news and Al Jazeera America as a representative of AIANJ, for the Architect’s perspective on lightweight wood construction materials. Architects understand that the building code takes into consideration the use group of a building as well as the construction type of materials in order to determine how then to protect the materials being used in order to meet a minimum standard and to be considered “safe”. But what is the public’s perception of “safe”? After all, as Architects, it is our responsibility to design “safe” buildings. In watching many Youtube videos and reading white papers on the subject of lightweight construction as I prepared for the interview, I found that the public’s perception of engineered lightweight materials, mainly wood I-joists, is that they are “cheap”. There are a few reasons for this that I can understand from a lay person’s perspective. One being that the material used for the web of the I-joist, which is oriented strand board or OSB, appears to be a cheap wafer board. A second one is that after a fire, not much of a structure built with these materials is still standing. Being interviewed at the AvalonBay site, it did not take an experienced eye to see that the stair towers and elevator shafts that were constructed of masonry concrete block were the only structures standing amongst a sea of wood debris. It was clear to the eye that the masonry concrete block was far superior to the wood because it had survived the fire. Architects also understand that the building code does not require the building to fully withstand a fire but only that it withstands the fire long enough for its occupants to escape in a safe manner. Fortunately, this was the case in the AvalonBay fire.  All the occupants were able to escape and no lives were lost.  The public does not understand that this is in fact the way the building code works. It is up to the Architect and the owner of the building to design it in such a way that it potentially can withstand a fire and the effects of fighting the fire in order to minimize the reconstruction.

So is the public wrong for having the perception that engineered lightweight wood materials are cheap? Or is it the industry’s fault for allowing this perception to exist? There is one other party that should be involved in this conversation and that is the insurance industry since they are making the payouts on policies to then reconstruct these buildings. Any Architect that has been involved in repairing/reconstructing a building after a severe fire understands that it is a liability nightmare for all parties involved and that the best approach for the owner is to rebuild the structure. Rebuilding instead of repairing should not be a problem since the insurance policy covers for the “replacement value”. Well, anyone who has worked on a fire job also knows that the term “replacement value” is vague and does not guarantee that this “value” will in fact cover the full cost of the reconstruction. A question for Architects to consider is the following: how sustainable or resilient are the current practices in constructing single or multi-family buildings if they cannot withstand a fire?

Recently legislation was proposed by Republican Assemblyman Scott T. Rumana, bill A4195, and if approved it would impose a two year moratorium on the use of lightweight construction materials in multi-family buildings. The proposed bill not only includes engineered wood, but also traditional nominal wood and steel bar joists. If approved, this bill would be devastating to the construction industry and would affect not only job creation, the housing market, but also architectural firms. AIANJ is working to meet with the Assemblyman and discuss this proposed legislation.

First Regional Resilience Design Studio Slated For Newark

The AIA Foundation revealed the location for the first of five design studios across the country.
By Sara Johnson, Architect Magazine posted June 26, 2014

The American Institute of Architects Foundation (AIAF) revealed the first location of a new series of design studios on Thursday.

AIAF president George Miller, FAIA, and executive director Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop announced at AIA Convention 2014 that the first Regional Resilience Design Studio will be at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Center for Resilient Design, located in Newark, N.J.

“The work that we intend to do is already in their DNA,” Bloodworth Botop says, speaking to ARCHITECT later Thursday.

This Newark location is the first of five studios that will work on localized resilience projects in places across the country. The studios are a collaboration project with Architecture for Humanity, Public Architecture, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and the Clinton Global Initiative. This first studio will officially launch in July, Bloodworth Botop says.

AIAF also announced that this first studio will be funded by a $250,000 grant from Benjamin Moore. Bloodworth Botop says that this grant will fund salaries for a national program director and a chief resilience architect for the Newark studio, as well as additional startup costs.