Reading A Building – Frame Stucco

By John W. Mittendorf

Frame stucco buildings are relatively common, with few outstanding hazards other than the following common considerations.

From a simplistic viewpoint, these buildings are constructed with a wood frame interior and stucco on the exterior. This has been the standard until recently. Although newer buildings of this type are similar to the older buildings, exterior decorative enhancements (corbels, etc) are now made from foam, placed on the exterior and then covered with a plaster like material or genuine plaster. If fire extends to the foam, it will give off a synthetic smoke that can be extremely hazardous to suppression personnel.

What is the approximate age of the building? If it was constructed before the 1960s, the building is likely conventional construction with no outstanding hazards (other than old buildings that may have balloon construction and knob and tube wiring). If the building has been constructed during the past 20 years, the frame stucco portion of the building is probably substantial, however the roof may be of lightweight construction.

Newer frame stucco buildings (i.e., strip malls, etc) are prime candidates for fascias.

For this article, fascias, mansards, and overhangs are in the same classification. This method of construction is common in most areas of this country, and for the following reasons:

  • Spanish style of architecture is popular.
  • As the popularity of flat roofs has increased, (the cheapest style of roof), so has the popularity of fascias used to “dress” the front and sides of a building, and to hide equipment and machinery (HVAC systems) on the roof. McDonald’s or Wendy’s restaurants are good examples.

Of all the modern building construction hazards, this author considers this method of construction one of the most dangerous, yet easily identifiable. Let’s look at some common considerations.

Fascias come in two distinct varieties – an integral part of the construction and an add-on method of construction. Quite often, the add-on varieties are attached to the exterior of a building as a retro fit. This can result in a partition between the attic space and the fascia. However, the fascia has been added to the existing building, which can result in minimal strength. Conversely, fascias that are an integral part of the construction can have a stronger method of support and will often not be separated from the attic space by some type of partion or fire wall. Interestingly, an overhang that is part of lightweight trusses can be cantilevered 1/3 of the length of a truss. So, if a lightweight truss is 30 feet in length, the truss can be cantilevered 10 feet. Additionally, when you look at the fascias in your district, ask yourself if they are equipped with sprinklers and/or fire partitions, and are separated from the attic. The answer to these t is normally no, meaning that a fire that extends into an attic area can easily spread to a fascia, which then becomes an external common attic around the exterior of a building that is capable of spreading fire around the exterior of a building. Remember, if you encounter a fire that has started in the interior of a building with a fascia, you will need to evaluate the possibility of fire extending to the attic and then the fascia (which means you may need to check three distinct areas for fire). One last point: when you encounter a fascia, remember to consider if it is lightweight or conventional construction. You know what the answer will be most of the time.

John W. Mittendorf joined the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department (LAFD) in 1963, rising to the rank of captain II, task force commander. In 1981, he was promoted to battalion chief and in the year following became the commander of the In-Service Training Section. In 1993, he retired from LAFD after 30 years of service. Mittendorf has been a member of the National Fire Protection Research Foundation on Engineered Lightweight Construction Technical Advisory Committee. He has provided training programs for the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland; the University of California at Los Angeles; and the British Fire Academy at Morton-in-Marsh, England. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering and author of the books Truck Company Operations (Fire Engineering, 1998) and Facing the Promotional Interview (Fire Engineering, 2003).

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