Construction Concerns: False Building Fronts

By Gregory Havel

Modern building construction and remodeling can result in structures that can visually deceive us when we respond to an incident.

Photo 1 shows the front and side of a strip mall. Viewing only the front suggests that it is only two stories, which is proved by the side view. However, neither view suggests what is behind the tall gables on the front.

(1) Photos by author.


This building appears to have a masonry exterior. If the floor and roof trusses are steel, this could be a type II (noncombustible) building, according to the codes. If the floor and roof trusses are wood, this could be a type III (ordinary or brick-and-joist) building.

Photo 2 shows the front and side of a lower building in the same development, suggesting that this one has a steel-stud frame covered in fiberglass-faced gypsum sheathing, which will be covered with brick or another decorative finish. Note that several large areas of the sheathing are plywood, which provides a solid anchoring point for signs and awnings over windows.



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Photo 3 shows a view of the steel stud framing in the building in photo 2.



Photo 4 shows the rear of the building in photo 1. The tall gables on the front side and the pitched roofs on three sides of the building are revealed to be concealed spaces like mansards that are set on top of and in front of the masonry building wall. These mansards and gables make the building appear more attractive and less boxy than it would without them. It is unknown whether this building and its mansards have automatic fire sprinkler systems. The gables and mansards also conceal several roof-top heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning appliances.



These photos emphasize the need for preincident plans, especially in target hazards and commercial buildings. It also emphasized the need for the incident commander to make a 360° walk-around of the building that contains the incident.


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Gregory HavelGregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.



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