Reading A Building – Commercial Occupancy Building Styles

By John W. Mittendorf

Garden Apartments
The term “garden apartment” comes from hotels/motels with units that open or fac a center garden area within the complex. Although the terminology may vary for these structures, the basic idea is that they do not have a center hallway; each unit opens to the exterior of the structure, and are common in residential or commercial occupancies. Common considerations follow.

  • Common Attics – As most of these occupancies are comprised of numerous units, common attics are found frequently. The presence of division walls (which are supposed to partition a common attic) can be identified if the walls project above the roof. The major consideration with division walls is whether they are intact or violated by cable, electrical, plumbing, etc. The presence of attic vents can be an excellent indicator for extension of smoke and/or fire in a common attic.
  • Easy Access – Since these occupancies feature units that open to the outside of the building and not a center hallway (which can also contain self closing fire doors), exterior stairs to floors above grade simplify access to upper floors. This can enhance fire suppression operations by simplifying aerial device operations and the implementation of hose lines.
  • Simplified Operations – As opposed to a center hallway structure, fire extending out of a garden apartment unit will vent to the exterior of the structure. This will enhance the implementation of resources and minimize search and rescue operations.
  • Age – The age of the building is an excellent indicator of lightweight or conventional construction.

This type of structure should be on every firefighter’s list of favorite structures as most municipalities have at least one. These gems have been around for years which means that although they share numerous common features, there are also some basic differences.

  • Common Attics – Most mini-malls are nothing more than numerous occupancies/units in a rectangular building, resulting in a common attic the length of the building. Again, the presence or absence of division walls will have a major impact on the length and hazard of a common attic in this type of structure. Additionally, look for the presence of attic vents. Truck companies on a roof normally have an excellent view of ventilators and other signs that indicate the condition of the common attic area.
  • Old vs New – Older mini-malls employ conventional construction, and masonry exterior walls are common. Newer mini-malls employ (for the most part) lightweight construction. If masonry exterior walls are present, they are probably brick veneers. Additionally, newer mini-malls are commonly equipped with some type of mansard, fascia, or other type of overhang on the front of the building.
  • Access – Normally, access is relatively easy. Each unit has an entrance in the front and the back. Often, the rear entrance is a metal clad door in a metal frame. Interior security bars across the door are common.
  • Fascias – We will consider fascias in more detail when we consider the method of construction, but for now, let’s focus on two points.

    First, and potentially most important, where do you normally take the initial attack line when entering a structure? Answer: the front door! Since we are creatures of habit, if you suspect or know that fire has extended to a fascia that is hanging over the front door you are about to enter (on any type of structure), should you consider an alternate means of access? Secondly, most fascias that this author has observed do not have “fire stops” or sprinklers, and are common to the attic area. So, fire in a structure that extends to the attic area can easily spread to the exterior fascia, which is nothing more than an exterior common attic capable of spreading fire around the exterior of the building.

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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