By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Many home buyers prefer the modern features of a new home. They enjoy the comfort and convenience of extra bathrooms, kitchens with new cabinets and appliances, and energy-efficient features.
But lately I’ve been seeing some disturbing reports about the quality of some modern building materials. Specifically, three widely used products have been shown to create fire safety hazards.
Developers and homebuilders have used these products extensively to create thousands of new communities across the U.S. and Canada.
Let’s start with a video report about “lightweight construction” of new homes, and how quickly thinner, lighter lumber products collapse in a fire. (9 News Now, WUSA, Loudoun County, Virginia)
The National Fire Protection Association published a news release in 2009, describing how fire fighters have been injured, or have lost their lives, when floor joists and roof trusses have collapsed within minutes of their arrival.
The article also cites Underwriters Laboratories (UL) scientific studies of engineered lumber used in lightweight construction, confirming that the new materials fail more quickly than dimensional lumber when exposed to fire.
Such incidents have fueled a growing concern for the fire service and pose a significant challenge to the code community. In recent decades, an expanding range of construction methods and building products, particularly wooden truss roofing systems and wood I-joists that together are often termed “lightweight construction,” have been widely embraced by residential builders for their ability to deliver economy and functionality. Lightweight residential structures began to appear widely about 25 years ago, according to APA–The Engineered Wood Products Association (formerly the American Plywood Association), and have become increasingly popular ever since. From an engineering perspective, lightweight materials and construction techniques often outperform traditional dimensional lumber and assembly methods. Many recently built communities across the country are composed entirely of lightweight structures.
In separate studies by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), however, findings confirmed what firefighters have long suspected about what happens to lightweight construction when it is exposed to fire. In repeated tests by both groups, under carefully controlled conditions, lightweight structures were found to burn faster and lose their structural integrity quicker—in some cases much quicker—than those built with dimensional lumber, with obvious ramifications for the fire service and for anyone who lives in a residence constructed with lightweight materials.
The evidence confirms the critical importance of working smoke alarms and quick exit plans, in the event of a fire.
In certain regions of the U.S., particularly the northeast and midwestern states, vinyl siding is used almost exclusively for new home construction. In 2017 alone, according to U.S. Census data, 149,000 new homes wer built with vinyl siding.
But how does the material react when exposed to heat and fire? Experts say that fire spreads much more quickly on homes built with vinyl siding, especially when installed over foam insulation board.
See this CBS58 video
Fires become deadlier on homes with vinyl siding, study shows
by Adela Uchida Sunday, February 12th 2017
AUSTIN, Texas — Seventeen people in Texas have died in fires so far this year, according to the US Fire Administration. But there’s one thing you may not have thought about that may make the difference between life and death if your home catches fire — what your home is made of.
A 2008 Loudon County, Virginia fire was a textbook case of what can go wrong if your home is built with vinyl siding. Seven firefighters were hurt — four of them seriously burned — after they were trapped on the second floor during flashover.
“The emergency responders are looking at a fire that grows much more rapidly than traditional fires,” said Jeffrey Shapiro, a fire protection engineer with Lake Travis Fire Rescue. “Firefighters have learned through experience that fires that involve more combustible exterior materials are growing much more rapidly than they used to.”
For many years, local building codes across the U.S. have required Low-E windows for all new construction. The windows use two panes of glass with reflective coatings, and sometimes Argon gas between the dual panes, to reflect heat into the home in the winter, but away from the home in the summer.
As noted in a previous IAC post, several sources report that high intensity heat, reflected outward from Low-E windows, has been shown to melt vinyl siding, burn lawn furniture cushions, and start outdoor fires in brush and mulch.
Not long after WRAL investigative report series aired, North Carolina changed its building code, which no longer mandates Low-E windows for new construction.
But what should you do if you own a home with Low-E windows?
So far, experts say the best solutions to avoid fire risk are either replacing them with alternatives that do not reflect concentrated beams of intense heat, or, a much less expensive option, simply adding solar screens on the outside of your home’s windows.
If your home happens to be part of a homeowners, condominium, or housing cooperative association, spread the word among your neighbors and with your associaion’s board of directors, to encourage installation of window screens or awnings in the community.