Owners Voluntarily Upgrade Building Construction After Apartment Blaze
Enforcing a strict fire prevention or building code is tough enough. But getting a major property owner to voluntarily install expensive fire safety measures not required by law merits congratulations for all concerned.
It happened in West Allis, Wis. (population 65,000) following a serious fire in an apartment building early last year.
The 442-unit Hills Apartments complex occupies a 20-acre site at the extreme southwest corner of the city. Because of the land’s gently rolling contours, many of the 14 separate buildings are combination two and three-story, as was the heavily fire-damaged Building G. Fire broke out in Apartment 213 of Building G about 8:45 a.m. Feb. 8. At that point this “second-floor” apartment was actually on the building’s ground floor. A defective lamp cord near the baseboard apparently ignited an adjacent sofa in the apartment living room. Several empty extinguishers found nearby indicated an unsuccessful attempt by occupants to fight the blaze before giving the alarm.
—west Allis star photo
Valued today at nearly $11 million, the complex was erected in several stages, most of the work done in 1969. At that time neither state nor city laws dictated any of a number of fire safety requirements such as smoke detectors, which have since been adopted. Masonry outside walls, however, were required by the West Allis Building Code. Interior size-up disclosed the extent of upward fire spread, necessitating second and third alarms with mutual-aid responses from three neighboring communities. Lines were taken into the central hallway of the top floor, where crews broke through the ceiling in a number of places during the eventually successful effort to get streams in operation ahead of the fast-moving blaze. Roof collapse occurred rapidly as the trusses separated or burned through, and ladder pipes were operated from both sides of the building.
Building G was typical. Three stories at its south end, two at the north, 308 X 60 feet, it contained 42 apartments. The lower half of the outside walls was faced with brick, the upper half with wood sheathing. At several locations, a 5-foot frame balcony over 25 feet long projected from the third floor.
Above the top floor, a ceiling containing 6 inches of insulation, 2X4 roof trusses on 2-foot centers, using steel gusset or escutcheon plates at the framing joints supported a plywood gable roof deck extending 4 feet beyond the side walls to form an overhanging soffit.
The entire attic space, about 8 feet high under the peak, was open from one end of the building to the other. Draft stops or subdividing walls were not called for in the codes at the time of construction. (A West Allis requirement for maximum undivided area of 4000 square feet was not adopted until 1970, after most of the Hills buildings were completed.)
The hundreds of closely-spaced trusses each containing at least 60 feet of 2 X A lumber, constituted an enormous fire load looked like a lumber yard up there,” commented West Allis Fire Chief William Beres later. Moreover, numerous gaps in the soffit enclosure made it possible to see out around the edges from within the attic.
Defective lamp cord
West Allis Star photo
Inside, the fire was almost entirely confined to the apartment of origin. Flames never broke through the ceiling to the top floor. However, after an occupant broke the glass patio door, flames rolled out directly beneath one of the overhanging wooden balconies. That in turn spread fire directly upward into the soffit from which it involved the attic, bypassing the upper floor entirely.
Flames were mushrooming throughout the undivided attic, spreading fast towards the north and south ends of the building, when fire fighters arrived on the 8:58 a.m. alarm with two engines, an aerial, a rescue company and a battalion chief, joined by the city’s paramedic unit once a working fire was reported.
By the time the fire was under control shortly before 11 a.m., three-fourths of the roof was gone. Smoke, heat and structural damage was heavy throughout the building. However, almost no fire had gotten into the other apartments or the hallways below the top floor.
Fortunately, the time of day had minimized the life hazard; only 50 persons were in the building. All escaped or were brought out safely. But cars in the adjoining parking lot, plus large snowbanks around the edges, hindered access by fire fighters and apparatus. Many hose lines had to be stretched in by hand through adjacent yards and fields from a block away. Said Chief Beres: “If this had happened at night, with probably an even greater delay in calling us, plus a lot more people to get out of the building, we could have had a disaster on our hands.”
Discussing the problem
Two days after the fire, realizing what a narrow escape from tragedy the community had enjoyed despite the $750,000 damage to Building G, West Allis Mayor jack Harlich met with Chief Beres; the City’s building inspector; Jack Recht. representing the property owners (Metropolitan Holding, which operates 5000 apartment units in the surrounding metropolitan area) and Glen Scholz, architect who had designed the buildings.
According to Scholz, “We all had long faces. We shared a common concern. How could we prevent this kind of thing from happening again?”
When Beres pointed out that the chief cause of rapid fire spread was the large, undivided attic, Recht and Scholz agreed to investigate placement of firestops not only in the rebuilt structure, but also in the other buildings of the complex.
Mayor Barlich announced a week later that “In the spirit of cooperation, the owners have offered to try to put fire stops in … to see if it would be feasible to do the same to other buildings. Their architects … will work on it to see if we can come up with a plan and get this done.”
The main problem was getting the materials into the attics of the undamaged buildings, equipped only with small ceiling scuttles, without excessive cost. “If it doesn’t work,” added Barlich, “we ll look at alternatives.”
Said Recht: “We started right away to put the stops in Building G. That wasn’t hard because so much of the roof was gone. But we had to work out design of new scuttles for the other buildings. We couldn’t really get started with installation untit june. Then we had to put the stops up in sections. It was a tough job”
Building G today
Building G now contains five such attic partitions.
“Each one is 5/8-inch one-hour-rated dry wall, taped on both sides,” Scholz explained. “We had to make sure access was provided from below on each side of each wall, because otherwise there would be no way to get into the closed-off attic areas.”
-photos by the author.
Fire doors through the attic stops would provide that access. But, Recht argued, “You can forget about those doors once the telephone or other utility men have to come through. They’ll prop them open, even nail them open, so they can work, and they get left that way. Now, with cable television crews coming in, we’ll have a bigger problem.”
Since 1978, Wisconsin law (preempting the former West Allis code provision) has required that attic spaces not exceed 3600 square feet in buildings housing more than four families. The reconstructed Building G now has no space exceeding 3100 square feet, the average being about 2900.
As part of the overall renovation when Building G was repaired, sprinklers were installed throughout the common spaces — halls, entry ways and utility areas. (Wisconsin did not require sprinklers in structures like these, three stories or less in height. However, the city code now calls for them above two stories.) Standpipes and hallway hose cabinets were put in. Battery-powered smoke detectors (to be required by 1983) have been put in each apartment, along with hallway units hardwired into the local alarm system. That system also controls magnetic latches on new hallway fire doors (three spaced along the building’s full length), which are released to close the doors when the alarm sounds. These, too, were voluntary additions by Metropolitan Holding. Smoke detector installation in the other buildings had begun even before the fire.
We want to stress that the owners undertook all this work in a cooperative spirit,” added Beres. “I mentioned the situation to others at the IAFC Conference in Philadelphia, and a lot of people were interested. Buildings like this are burning down all over the country. So the way we were able to work together with the property owners here to build added safety into structures where it wasn’t legally required may serve as a helpful example to other cities.”
The damaged building was ready for occupancy again last Nov. 1. Thanks to this unusual joint effort involving property owner, city officials, and the fire department, the tenants will be far safer from fire than they were a year earlier.