Life Safety

Fire Reduces Five-Story Building to Ash in Less Than 3 Hours

Wind gusts of 15 – 20 mph swept over 90 con­struc­tion work­ers as they labored dili­gent­ly on a five-sto­ry, wood framed, 396-unit build­ing in his­toric and diverse Mon­trose, Texas. The struc­ture was the $50 mil­lion upscale Axis apart­ment com­plex. At 12:30 p.m., on that qui­et March day in 2014, a small fire was report­ed on the roof of the Axis. Welders work­ing on the roof attempt­ed to put the fire out. But the high winds made it to impos­si­ble to con­trol the fire. Soon near­ly 200 fire­fight­ers and 80 pieces of emer­gency equip­ment respond­ed to the five-alarm fire. Regret­tably, the fire quick­ly spread through the wood-framed build­ing. The black smoke blind­ed the ter­ri­fied men and women on the job site. The work­ers were forced to flee the com­plex. One con­struc­tion work­er was trapped on a third sto­ry bal­cony as the flames whirled around him. For­tu­nate­ly, he was res­cued by lad­der just sec­onds before the flames would have engulfed him. Thank­ful­ly, no con­struc­tion work­ers or fire­fight­ers were hurt. At 2:56 pm, the fire was under con­trol. Trag­i­cal­ly, in less than three hours, the lux­u­ri­ous apart­ment com­plex was reduced to ash­es; just months before it was to open in June.

For years, wood con­struc­tion has been the stan­dard for both res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial build­ings. Wood is a faster, eas­i­er, and less expen­sive con­struc­tion mate­r­i­al than steel and mason­ry. How­ev­er, wood-framed, and worse yet, engi­neered-wood build­ings, are inher­ent­ly more dan­ger­ous under fire con­di­tions than those built with steel and mason­ry. In fact, a study by the Nation­al Fire Pro­tec­tion Asso­ci­a­tion doc­u­ments that engi­neered- wood burns quick­er and fails faster than cut lum­ber. Steel and mason­ry are not com­bustible, so fire spreads slow­er than either cut or engi­neered wood built build­ings. How­ev­er, steel can soft­en and bend, unlike mason­ry. Anoth­er down­side to both steel and mason­ry walls is they lack the ther­mal per­for­mance required by the Inter­na­tion­al Res­i­den­tial Code (IRC) and Inter­na­tion­al Build­ing Code (IBC) and so typ­i­cal­ly require insu­la­tion. Although wood con­struc­tion is very com­mon, con­cerns about fire safe­ty are caus­ing design­ers and archi­tects to often con­sid­er alter­na­tive mate­ri­als in wall con­struc­tion, like mason­ry, steel, or even bet­ter insu­lat­ed con­crete blocks (ICB).

When exposed to fire, insu­lat­ed con­crete blocks (ICB) lim­it the spread of flames. In addi­tion, ICBs do not burn, bend or soft­en like steel. Insu­lat­ed con­crete blocks also meet the ther­mal per­for­mance required by the Inter­na­tion­al Res­i­den­tial Code (IRC) and Inter­na­tion­al Build­ing Code (IBC) with­out addi­tion­al insu­la­tion. In sum­ma­ry ICB’s are capa­ble of achiev­ing fire rat­ings of up to four hours, pri­or to any fin­ish­es being applied. A four hour rat­ing means a wall’s assem­blies will stay intact once exposed to fire for four hours. Com­pare this to the com­plete destruc­tion, in less than three hours, of the wood-framed Axis build­ing! The exte­ri­or of a build­ing con­struct­ed with insu­lat­ed con­crete blocks is iden­ti­cal to a wood-frame build­ing once con­struc­tion is com­plete. How­ev­er, fire behaves dif­fer­ent­ly in ICB than wood frame build­ings. Build­ings con­struct­ed with ICB have few­er emp­ty spaces (cav­i­ties between struc­tur­al mem­bers) for fire to spread, and the insu­la­tion in ICB’s does not burn. There­fore, fire spreads slow­er in build­ings con­struct­ed with ICB than wood.

Bau­tex Wall Sys­tem Insu­lat­ed Con­crete Blocks Meet and Exceed Indus­try’s Stan­dard for Fire Resis­tance

Exte­ri­or and inte­ri­or walls of res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial build­ings can uti­lize the Bau­tex Wall Sys­tem insu­lat­ed con­crete blocks.The Bau­tex Blocks have an ASTM E119 fire rat­ing of four hours (two times the two-hour require­ment), and an ASTM E84 pub­lished val­ues for flame speed of zero and smoke devel­op­ment of twen­ty. Because the Blocks meet the ASTM E84 and NFPA 286 they essen­tial­ly meet the NFPA 101 code. Bau­tex Wall Sys­tem is high­ly fire resis­tant. They are also ener­gy effi­cient, wind and mois­ture resis­tant and deliv­er sound reduc­tion. When it comes to fire resis­tance, Bau­tex Blocks pro­vide the max­i­mum safe­ty avail­able in today’s choic­es of wall assem­bly mate­ri­als.

Fire quick­ly spreads in build­ings con­struct­ed of wood.The Axis apart­ment build­ing is a hor­ri­ble exam­ple of how quick­ly a build­ing con­struct­ed with wood can burn to the ground. Uti­liz­ing insu­lat­ed con­crete blocks that exceed indus­try’s stan­dard for fire resis­tance, like the Bau­tex Blocks, will cre­ate a safer, more fire resis­tant struc­ture than build­ings con­struct­ed with wood.

ASTM E119 estab­lish­es a wall assembly’s abil­i­ty to stop a fire from spread­ing.

The ULC-S101 applies specif­i­cal­ly to the test­ing of mate­r­i­al with fire and is unique to walls and ceil­ings.

ASTM E84 – Sur­face Burn­ing Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Build­ing Mate­ri­als. The pur­pose of the method is to deter­mine the rel­a­tive burn­ing behav­ior of the mate­r­i­al by observ­ing its flame spread.

The NFPA 101 is the only doc­u­ment that cov­ers life safe­ty in both new and exist­ing struc­tures with pro­vi­sions for all types of dwellings, egress require­ments, fire pro­tec­tion fea­tures, emer­gency light­ing, sprin­kler sys­tems, alarms, smoke bar­ri­ers, and spe­cial haz­ard pro­tec­tion.