Breakwater fire revisited: Exactly what are the potential dangers of “Toothpick Construction” techniques?

And we criticized Soviet designs?

As most readers know, The Breakwater is New Albany’s ballyhooed “luxury” apartment complex, a titled possession of the Flaherty & Collins behemoth in Indianapolis, but also municipally subsidized — to be frank, to an obscene extent.

One of the two buildings at The Breakwater caught fire on February 24, and New Albany firefighters spent most of the next day fighting the blaze. Fortunately the building was unoccupied (there were minor firefighter injuries), but because it hadn’t yet been finished, the sprinkler system was not activated.

According to a subsequent investigation, contractor error was responsible. The rubble since has been cleared, the insurance companies are haggling, and reconstruction will resume.

You can read the official conclusion of the Breakwater fire investigation in a previous post. Included are complete story links.

Fast forwarding a month, articles published just this week at Fire Engineering and The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) are hard-hitting, indeed.

In the first, we learn that in the aftermath of a catastrophic fire of similar circumstances in Raleigh, questions about building methods and materials are being raised.

In Raleigh building fire, a warning about construction standards, by the editorial board (The News & Observer)

As growth in Raleigh booms, buildings rise quickly. Perhaps, too quickly.

The spectacular fire that consumed a 241-unit apartment building under construction near downtown Raleigh last Thursday night has raised questions about the type and quality of building methods and materials being used in new buildings.

The fire that reduced The Metropolitan, an unfinished, five-story building at the corner of West Jones and Harrington Street, was apparently fueled by the extensive use of wood in the upper floors. Wood allows for faster and less expensive construction than using concrete and steel, but it’s vulnerable to fire, especially when the building is unfinished and sprinklers have not yet been installed …

I highly recommend reading in its entirety this piece by Jack J. Murphy about large lightweight toothpick construction buildings. He’s a fire service veteran, and appends his essay with voluminous references. Why aren’t we listening?

Note: In the first paragraph of Murphy’s article, it is my view that he intended to use the word “reservations” rather than “justifications.” As we have observed so many times before, spell check doesn’t help when the wrong word is spelled correctly.

Toothpick Construction: Enough Is Enough, by Jack J. Murphy (Fire Engineering)

The fire service has ample justifications about large lightweight toothpick construction buildings (LLW/TPC) long before the recent Raleigh (NC) five-alarm ‘Toothpick Construction’ fire.

So why is the construction industry and insurance companies not paying heed when it comes to better fire protection features? This can be effected either via the code development process or the industry stepping up and creating ‘best practices’ for an enhanced balance of fire protection systems, namely a full building suppression system and more robust passive fire protection for draft-stopping and fire walls (masonry) that extend through the roof within these residential complexes.

Over the years, the fire service has advocated a balance of fire protection that has fallen on deaf ears. A new fire service tactic to consider before a municipal council hearing and/or state legislation is how LLW/TPC building complex fires (whether these structures are under construction or occupied) are overwhelming local fire department response. For many communities, a fire response must go way beyond the municipality border lines to get a sustainable fighting force to help prevent such an enormous fire from becoming a much larger community conflagration.

In the February 2017, a LLW/TPC building under construction fire occurred in Maplewood, New Jersey. This fire quickly spread to the exposure building of similar construction; this building was approximately a few weeks away from being occupied. This building did, however, have masonry fire walls, although they are not yet required by code; they played a key role in saving the structure …

As an aside, in Kansas yet another fire broke out prior to the activation of sprinklers and destroyed an apartment building.

Official says welder sparked massive Kansas apartment fire (AP, via Fire Engineering)

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) — A fire that leveled a multi-million dollar apartment building under construction and spread to about two dozen homes in suburban Kansas City started when a welder accidentally ignited wooden building materials, fire officials said.

More than 100 firefighters battled the blaze at the CityPlace development in Overland Park on Monday and three were treated for minor injuries. The fire destroyed the four-story apartment building, heavily burned a second and rained burning debris onto a nearby neighborhood, damaging at least 22 other homes.

Overland Park Fire Chief Bryan Dehner said the building where the fire started was “most vulnerable” when the fire happened because it was so early in the construction process that it lacked fire deterrents such as a sprinkler system.

This makes three fires in three different places in a month’s span of time, all quite similar. Are any local news outlets planning on following up on these themes and how they pertain to our area?

I’m looking at you, Susan Duncan.