FIRE HAZARD AND ARCHITECTURE.
IN our issue of February 26, we printed an editorial article under the above heading, wherein we set forth the dangers of modern building construction, and held that the architects and builders must share the responsibility of such combustible construction with the owners; that the immense fire losses of the country were largely chargeable to faulty construction, and that they must continue to increase until better building methods are adopted. The American Architect of Boston, a most excellent authority in architectural matters, in its issue of July 2, criticises our remarks and defends the architects. We quote its criticism entire as follows :
We are accustomed to finding attacks on aichitects in the insurance journals, and, knowing the tendency of human nature to blame others for the misfortunes brought about by one’s own folly, have generally been disposed to overlook them, but we are sorry to find that FIRE AND WATER, the honest and able representative of the fire engineers’ views of such subjects, has unthinkingly fallen into a similar way of talking. In a recent article on “ Fire Hazard and Architecture ’ the editor, after deploring the universal use of wood finish in place of more resisting materials, says that “‘owners generally want a little money to go a good way, and are willing to sacrifice strength for show, and architects and builders are very w.lling to gratify them in this respect,” and concludes by putting most of the blame for the combustibility of our structures on the builders and architects, who, as it says. “ make building a study and should know better.” This proposition has a specious sound, which is very likely to deceive the ordinary writer, as it seems to have done the author of it, and it ought to be controverted without delay. We will leave the builders to fight their own battles, but in behalf of the architects, who, as we are informed, “ought to know better” than to design six-story buildings with wooden roofs, we should like to inquire if there is any respectable architect in the country who does not know that such buildings arc bad lire risks, or who is not perfectly acquainted with the methods of increasing their resistance to conflagration to any extent? After thus holding up the architects to reprobation, FIRE AND WATER proceeds to assert that ” fireproof construction is the best in the long run, on the score of economy, both to the owners and the public.’ This maxim may do for firemen, but archiiects and owners cannot dispose in such an easy way of the problems presented to them. We venture to say, tor example, that it the editor of I IRE AND WATER wished to improve a lot on a village street, he would, however excellent his principles, regard an architect who told him that the best and most prudent way of doing so would be to build a fireproof structure in the middle of it as little short of a lunatic. And he would be right, for a heavy, expensive structure which could not be rented for a fair interest on its cost, and could not be removed without great loss when circumstances made it advisable to utilize the land in a different way, would be a most foolish investment, and owners, with reason, expect architects to think quite as much of planning buildings which will bring in a good return on the capital locked up in them as of making them satisfactory to the underwriters. With this consideration in view, there are few architects who do not try to contrive even their cheapest buildings so as to resist fire as well as can be done without sactiftciog other interests of greater importance to the owner. Whether rightly or wrongly, many real estate proprietors have an idea that underwriters charge them a high price for insuring them against ordinary fire risks, and then, for their own profit, try to take advantage of any improvement or alteration on the estate to work upon the feelings of the architect, so as to get him surreptitiously, at the owner’s expense, to convert, for the benefit of the underwriters, the bad risk, which they are paid for insuring, into a good risk without change of rates. It is true that architects are usually willing to incur something of their share of this suspicion for the sake of advocating what they think to be good principles of building, but it is too much to expect them to throw overboard every other consideration of prudence and economy for the sake of promoting the interest of the underwriters, who might, with advantage, recall occasionally the fact that all the important improvements in the art of fire-resisting construction have been devised either by architects or the officers of the mill mutual insurance companies ; that in the practice of this art the architects of America stand at the head of the whole world, and that the rules and regulations which are now feebly put forward by underwriters’ associations in our larger cities have never yet, so far as we have seen, contained a single suggestion or warning that had not been familiar to all respectable architects for many years, while a good part of the rules which have come under our observation are mangled and absurdly misunderstood imitations of maxims drawn up for various occasions by architects and builders.
In replying, we wish to say distinctly, that the question of construction is not one in which underwriters are interested to any greater extent than other good citizens. It is a great mistake to suppose that their pecuniary interests are affected in any way by the fire losses. The waste by fire is a public calamity, because what is thus destroyed is a waste of wealth that is to be made good or the damage sustained by the community at large. Insurance companies, it is true, are organized for the purpose of furnishing indemnity for fire losses, but whatever they pay out in consequence of them they collect from the insuring public. It makes no difference to them whether the losses are great or small; if they are excessive they increase their rates; if they are light their rates are reduced. Insurance capital is not expected to be used in the payment of fire losses. If the premium receipts do not meet all outgoes, including losses, management expenses and dividends to stockholders, the stockholders very soon become discouraged and will close up the concern before their capital becomes impaired. The companies are simply mediums for collecting money from the many and disbursing it among the few who sustain losses. It is a maxim with them that they must have numerous fires in order to keep propertyowners in a necessary state of alarm to induce them to insure their property, and while they do not want conflagrations, they do want many small fires. Their motto is to charge for the risks as they find them,” and their rates are based upon this motto. In considering the question of the annual waste by fire, underwriters are to be left out of account entirely, so far as having any special interest in the matter is concerned, or as being entitled to special consideration.
Our contemporary, it is plain to be seen, defends the architects upon principle, and rather from a theoretical than a practical standpoint. There is no doubt that architects know better than to sanction the construction of that class of highly inflammable buildings that fill all our large cities, but when the practical view is presented to them, and they are required by the owner of the property to put up a large and attractive building at the least possible price, too many are found who are willing to sacrifice principle for the sake of the pecuniary emoluments involved in the construction, and they therefore conform to the owner’s wish, and in doing so ignore the principles of fire protection. There are hundreds of buildings in this city that were erected in violation of every principle of safety, and for these, the architects, the builders and the owners must divide the responsibility. A few years ago the style was greatly in vogue to put up business blocks six, eight and nine stories in height, surmounted with mansard roofs, ornamented with hollow iron fronts, with the floors supported by iron columns, and the whole interior lined with the most inflammable wood that could be obtained. Some of the worst fires that we have had in New York have been caused by these fraudulent iron fronts, behind which the flames spread from one building to another with electrical rapidity, and before the firemen were aware that the fire had got away from them, they saw it bursting out from the windows and roofs of buildings three or four doors away. We remember such a fire in the dry-goods district, which, breaking out in one store, was supposed to be nearly under control, when the flames appeared three doors away and finally consumed four or five buildings. In this instance the false iron fronts acted as a flue to suck the flames from one store to the other. Can it be possible that the architects who designed and directed the construction of these buildings did not know the dangerous character of the structures they were erecting ? If they did, was it not culpable in them to sacrifice the principles of their science to the demands of a greedy owner?
Is the safety and the welfare of a whole city to be jeoparded at the demand of an avaricious propertyowner? If, as our contemporary asserts, architects in general know the danger of mansard roofs and of buildings constructed almost entirely of wood and iron, are they to be held guiltless when, because of such construction, large districts are laid waste and property worth millions of dollars destroyed ? It is possible that for isolated risks, as mentioned by our contemporary, it may not be necessary to employ fireproof methods for the reasons given, but such excuses cannot avail in the business sections of our large cities, where the buildings are supposed to be erected for permanency. To-day the cities are filled with flimsy structures that are a constant menace to the surrounding property. The architects must take their share of the condemnation that all intelligent men visit upon such methods of construction. There are many buildings in New York to day that are so dangerous that the officers of the fire department are extremely chary in permitting their men to enter them in case of fire, and the chief of the department has pointed out to us large blocks that are so fraught with peril that he would not permit his men to go inside after the fire had obtained headway, nor to remain in close proximity to the walls while the destruction of the buildings was in progress. Every captain of a company makes it his business to familiarize himself with the structures within his district, in order that he may avoid those which are designated as “ death-traps ” in case of a fire occurring in them.
In our previous consideration of this question, we were not discussing the small isolated buildings usually found in the residence districts, but those that are erected in the heart of our business centres; that are surrounded by immense values, the destruction of any one of which involves a loss that runs up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Such a building, No. 343 Broadway, in the midst of the dry-goods district, where values are stored to the extent of hundreds of millions, was destroyed on Saturday last, involving a loss of property valued at over $150,000 and the sacri. fice of two lives. The walls of this building were light and flimsy, it was finished with wood from cellar to roof, and was stocked with fireworks and toys. An explosion of fireworks started a blaze that swept up through the structure with such rapidity that the employees had to rush for their lives and two failed to reach the street. Had that building been properly constructed, the flames would have been confined to the basement, among the fireworks where they originated. We do not pretend to know the technical relations that exist between the architect, the builder and the owner of the property, but we are very certain that the methods that have been in vogue in the construction of business blocks during the past few years are extremely faulty, and we do not believe that they would have been adopted if they had not been, at the least, sanctioned by the architects. We have no desire to place a greater responsibility upon the members of this profession than belongs to them, but most certainly they occupy a position that will warrant them in dictating to a greater or less extent to builders and owners, and they could prevent, to a great degree, the recklessness now displayed if they chose to do so.
Primarily the responsibility for the modern incendiary building construction rests with our legislators, who refuse or neglect to pass stringent building laws and to make such provision for their enforcement as will insure compliance with their requirements. Such building laws as we have are insufficient to secure the most approved building methods, and even these are inefficiently administered because no provision is made for adequate supervision. When builders of the Buddensieck stripe abound in every city, whose only object is to erect a shell that will hold a tenant by the cheapest methods possible, it becomes absolutely necessary that there shall be the strictest supervision over construction in order to secure safety to life .and property. It costs this city $1,500,000 annually to provide fire protection for property within the city limits, because of the combustible nature of the buildings, and yet the building laws are so insufficient that a combination of architect, builder and owner may at any time erect a building that is a constant peril and menace to all the surrounding property and may, by its destruction, cause a conflagration to which that of Chicago would be but as a side-show. Fire underwriters and the fire department officials are in a constant state of nervousness regarding the perils of that portion of the city known as the dry-goods district, where millions of dollars of values are confined in a limited area, and where fireproof construction is found in but a limited number of instances. So great is the danger of fire in this section, that underwriters are reluctant to assume the risk, and will only write indemnity to a very limited amount upon each building. If $500,000 of insurance is required by any individual propertyowner in this district, it takes nearly every insurance company in the United States to cover it, and even some of the best companies will write but a few thousand dollars upon it. The character of the buildings in this district is such as to render it unsafe for them to assume large risks. When city after city is filled with such quick-burning structures as now exist, and the fire losses in consequence mount up to over $100,000,000 a year, architects can hardly plead that they have no responsibility in the matter. The fact that they “ know the right and still the wrong pursue,” but increases the measure of