A Plea for Better Building Construction.

A Plea for Better Building Construction.

There is so much good sense in a letter concerning slow burning building construction which appeared recently in the columns of The Pittsburgh Dispatch, that we reprint it entire, not as containing any especially novel views of the question, but as presenting known facts in a particularly clear and concise manner:

“Your timely editorial on the Wood street fire the other day,” the writer says, “in which deserved reflection was cast on the flimsiness of much of our present building, has been strikingly justified by the occurrence since of the serious fires in Chicago, Syracuse, the terrible asylum one in Tennessee, the $2,000,000 one in New York and the one in our own city night before last, which, distressing as it was, might have been a very holocaust. This all in a few days.

“ In your plea for ‘better building’ you advocate very properly, among other means, a larger use of iron joists, terra cotta fillings, etc., and this is very well, but this particular recommendation as a mitigation of fire loss cannot apply to, by far, the larger share of buildings. Limitation to this system would be so largely prohibitory that general progress would be impeded under present conditions. We must continue to use wood, but we must continue to use it better. Something (or a good deal) might be said about how even the iron-joist filled system has failed frequently in fulfilling its promise of absolute safety, but it is not to the deficiencies of this class of buildings, which only corporations and capitalists can afford, but in the common every-day structures, such as ordinary people can own or pay rent for, that the greatest and most general reform is needed. This is to be simply in the direction of a more extended use of ‘ slow combustion ’ methods. Any feature of construction that resists fire and retards its more than geometrical progression, is to be welcomed as a step in the right direction.

“ There is in universal use in all classes of structures a most perfect fire resisting medium in the shape of plastering—indeed, it is the only non-combustible element entering into the make up of the larger portion of the homes of America to-day Common plaster—better still—good plaster, is not surpassed as a fire opposer, but its shortcoming in this regard is not due to any inherent quality, but simply to its method of application on the flimsy and, as we shall sec, treacherous foundation of wood lathing. It certainly is the commonest thing to find ceilings cracked and loose. Investigation would develop the. fact that the keying of the plaster was more or less broken, and the latter may, and does, come down on the slightest provocation.

” Let us suppose a breath of fire strikes such a ceiling. The plaster strips instantly and there, just to hand, is what the heretofore incipient blaze is looking for, kindling properly placed. Taking quick hold, the flames rush along the joist to partitions, where wood-lathed vertical flues add fresh fuel of the same favorable nature, and thence, quickened by the direction, up to attic and roof spaces, where the destruction is complete. All done so rapidly that inadequate warning only is had. Is not this the story over and over again? The story of the Montreal asylum, of public institutions, school buildings innumerable? To the fatal and facile exposure through stripping of the plaster, must be credited a large share of disaster. In itself, to have such tinder like combustible as wood lathing as part of a building is bad, but to have it fail of its function at the critical time is extremely bad. In all fireproof buildings wood lathing is completely tabooed. Where plastering must be carried on other than solid masonry, if hollow brick are not used it is applied to metal lathing fastened on iron studding. Examples of such minor partitions made in the latter way exist in the Westinghouse and new government buildings in our city. Metallic lathing is made in a number of forms, and as frequent demonstrations have proven its great value in successfully filling the desideratum of carrying unflinchingly the admirable fire resistant named, there is no excuse for its not being more generally adopted.

” If partitions and floors were made more or less invulnerable by any means, just to that degree would they serve as cut-offs and rciard fire instead of adding immediately ami at touch ‘ fuel to the flame.’ As to the much abused elevator shaft there is absolutely no difficulty outside of passenger ones in providing automatic covers at each floor. It is only a question of some outlsy Open staircases arc to be considered nearly as bad as elevator opening* in conveying fire from story to story. If these were enclosed in the old-fashioned way and provided with the fire resisting doors Mr. Atkinson prescribes, at top and bottom, danger from this source would be reduced immensely. The objectionable total closing up of staircases could be mitigated by having such enclosure carried down only sufficiently far to give head room from each story, and to a platform there provided and with such door as mentioned. This would leave the lower portion of each flight open. Of course such enclosure should be constructed on lines indicated for safety.

“ Walls should lie true ‘ fire walls’ wherevet possible. The splendid fire wall of the Hamilton building, at the Masonic Hall fire, certainly prevented a most disastrous conflagration.

“The ‘defective flue’ is only to be mentioned with reprobation, and in all conscience ought not to exist. The use of the automatic sprinkler, of such proven success in New England, should be more general as a safety provision. These are a few of the directions not costly of attainment, wherein we might build better in our every day, commonplace structures, and thus diminish in good measure the enormous annual fire loss of $125,000,000, which is just so much of our national treasure and financial ability gone irretrievably. Architects and builders know how to do better, but between limitations imposed at first off and the inevitable razeeing process, these worthy people have the ground taken from under them. Unfortunately there is nothing showy about ‘better building ’ in a slow combustion sense, and we go ahead, build up the old way, bum down and take our innocent neighbor may-be with us. But this latter raises an ethical question too broad for any discussion here even if space and the editor permitted.”

How THE ROMANS BUILT THEIR Roads.—“ In laying out a highway,” iwrites John Gitmer Speed in a contemporary, “ the old Roman engineers seemed to practice a plan which would seem very strange to us. Whether or not they made a preliminary survey for the purpose of observing the topographical features of the country the records do not speak, but it is manifest to my mind that they did not. They knew whither they wished to go. Standing at the starting point, some landmark in the proper direction would be selected, and the road located on an absolutely straight line to that point. Then a trench was dug the entire length until some kind of solid foundation was found. When a foundation of solid rock ryas found the lowest course of masonry was omitted, This masonry consisted of three courses, each about twelve inches thick. The lowest course was of large Hat stones, put in with reference to bearing, the interstices filled with sprawles and the whole grouted with cement. The second course was of concrete—that is, small stones mixed with cement mortar, and the surface of this was smoothed very carefully. On top of this the third course was laid, and this consisted of polygonal blocks fitted with the utmost nicety. These roadways were from sixteen feet to twenty-six feet wide from euro to curb, and beyond the curbing on each side of the road was a foot pavement two feet wide. The stone of which these roads were built was usually of volcanic origin and very hard and black in color. Notwithstanding the substantial character of these roads, the utmost weight which each class of vehicle was permitted to carry was regulated by law, and these laws were strictly enforced.”

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