High Buildings and Fire Risks

High Buildings and Fire Risks

Ernest Flagg, the well-known architect and building expert of New York City, who at one time opposed the erection of skyscrapers, has not become reconciled to them, but has perforce been obliged to acquiesce in them as (what may be looked upon) “necessary evils” even in Fifth avenue, points out that so far as fire risks go they need not be looked upon as likely to increase those that already exist in that street and those leading off east and west from it. He claims that a “limitation of height will not remove the lire risk. The only practical way to do that is to build absolutely without the use of inflammable material, and this can better be done in high buildings than in low ones, because as the earning power of high buildings is greater than that of low ones, their builders can better afford to use the more expensive material. The chief danger to American cities from fire lies, not in the high buildings, but in the general flimsy and inflammable character of the low ones. The way to overcome this is to amend the building laws so as to make possible the general use of fire-resisting material, which might easily be done by requiring thicker walls where wooden beams are used and by removing some of the present unnecessary and burdensome restrictions on the use of incombustible material.” He suggests a plan which, in his opinion, would overcome all the alleged evils of the skyscraper. He would “permit the erection of buildings of any height, but would so restrict their area as to limit congestion, insure light for the streets and the buildings themselves, and protect the rights of adjoining property to a fair share of the light of day.” He would make them “safe against tire by altogether forbidding the use of inflammable material in their construction.” This latter measure ke knows to be practicable, because he has built several such buildings himself at slightly increased cost over the usual way, the Singer tower and the new Scribner building now going up on Fifth avenue. He would “restrict the area which can be built on to a great height to a certain percentage of the area of the lot: limit the height of the rest of the building in proportion to the width of the street, and allow no wood whatever to be used in buildings any part of which exceeds the lower limit.”

Robert Grier Cooke, president of the Fifth Avenue Association, who is a vigorous opponent of the erection of loft (high) buildings on the avenue, becomes more and more opposed to such structures in that section of the city. He confesses that he has not met with much, if any, success in his opposition, but when the Asch (Triangle Waist Company) fire happened his association saw its opportunity. It may be pointed out, however, that the organization of which he is president does not oppose high buildings as such, but simply from a selfish standpoint—that of the inconveniences which the people of Fifth avenue have to endure if such structures (all of which he lumps under the one head of “sweatshops”) are permitted on that street. The remedy in the eyes of the association was to “bring about proper lire regulations. By so doing,” he explains, “we may not only serve a great public purpose through the help that we may give to workers, but also our own purposes of keeping manufacturers of garments—‘sweatshops’—off Fifth avenue.” He asks: “How will more stringent fire regulations accomplish this? First, because they will require that all new buildings put up shall have broader stairways than is now the case. These stairways will occupy space that otherwise would be rentable, therefore the space left over must command higher rentals. This would render them unsuitable to sweatshop owners. Similarly, by regulations limiting the number of operatives who may work in one room in these new buildings, they would be made less suitable for manufacturers of cheap garments. The restriction of the height of buildings falls right in with the enforcing of new fire regulations. If a builder cannot run up a building to the limit of height, the restricted building must command higher rentals from its tenants and will consequently get a better class of trade— the kind that Fifth avenue now has and that we want it to have in the future.”

HIGH BUILDINGS AND FIRE RISKS.

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HIGH BUILDINGS AND FIRE RISKS.

CHIEF Bonner has more than once protested against the erection of skyscrapers in New York on account of the difficulty of reaching any fire that may break out in the higher stories of such structures. So long as they are merely occupied as offices, it is possible that their dangers are minimized by their fireproof construction (granting for argument’s sake that any building can be guaranteed as absolutely fireproof ”); but, as such buildings are now frequently being used for storage warehouses and their rooms are becoming filled—often to repletion—with every kind of goods and merchandise, combustible as well as non-combustible, the perils attendant on such erections are obvious. These risks are increased tenfold when the difficulties of reaching the fire are taken into consideration. The watchman and janitor may be asleep or not to be gotten at, as was the case at the recent fire on the eighth floor of the Astor building on Pine street and Broadway and Wall street; the elevators may refuse to work or, as in the case of that same building, there may be no one on hand to work them in which case the firemen, after having lost time in breaking open the iron entrance doors, may be compelled to drag their heavy hose all the way up several flights of stairs—eight flights in the case of the Astor building fire, and run the chance of being unable to get down again besides. Add to these ordinary dangers that of insufficient water supply—and, even with all New York’s future facilities, the pressure will never be sufficient to deal with the higher stories of these skyscrapers—and the risks are multiplied many fold. It will be said that the owners of these buildings will provide against this last difficulty. As yet, however, this has not been generally done, and where it has been attempted, success has by no means been the outcome ; nor can it be guaranteed that any sprinkling system or any other mechanical devices, however theoretically perfect, shall work to order just when they are most needed. Past experience has been sometimes very much the other way either the machinery has refused to act or the hose suppliedbythe owners—in itself toooftenof the cheapest quality—will as likely as not burst just at a critical moment. What steps should be taken (supposing the law prescribes no height-limit to such structures) to render them less hazardous risks from an insurance standpoint,and,in the interests of the firemen,to minimize the latter’s chances of being killed from their collapse or caught like rats in a trap and smothered to death by smoke or burned to a crisp in the top floors, owing to the failure of the elevators to work or the standpipes to operate, is a question for the future. Common sense would seem to demand some effective legislation on the subject.