Safeguarding Old Residential Type Buildings
Vertical Type Ladder Fire Escape Valueless in Case of Fire—Protecting the Stairwell by the Use of Metal Lath
WHILE new legislation may be passed that will tend to decrease the fire hazard in new buildings, the old type of buildings that are then standing continue to be serious life hazards in ease of fire. By using metal lath to protect the vertical openings, the author states that a great deal of the hazard may be removed.
There are hundreds of thousands of these old style of residential buildings now extant throughout the country. They were built in the days before there was much common knowledge on the subject of fire prevention. That which there was, concerned itself chiefly with protection against external hazards, consequently, most of these buildings have masonry exterior walls, because it was the general impression that the greatest danger was from fires originating outside the building.
Interior protection was almost, if not entirely, neglected. Open elevator shafts enclosed merely by ornamental iron grilles, long unlighted corridors leading to only one means of exit, unprotected interior stairways in many cases adjoining the open elevator shaft, most of these plastered on ordinary lath with wood wainscoting are the rule of this type of building. Electric wiring in those days was in its infancy and the modern requirements for enclosing in conduit were unknown. The wide spread use of electric household devices such as toasters, electric irons, vacuum cleaners and washing machines was barely dreamed of and hardly prepared for.
Convenience outlets in such buildings are few, if any, but every tenant and owner of such a building considers himself a fairly satisfactory electrician and proceeds to remedy these oversights of architects and builders of the past. Consequently many fires today are traced to attempts made by such amateurs to connect present day electrical necessities to wiring service never intended to carry the load. Inadequate and unprotected wiring are used. Sometimes when protecting fuses don’t function as the owner thinks they should he dispenses with them altogether.
Chimneys were frequently built with brick on edge without a flue lining; smoke pipes from basement heating plants were built close to unprotected wood joists, wood ceiling, or wood lath and plaster. The tops of furnaces and boilers were permitted to reach within a few inches of the joists overhead. Spontaneous combustion was a new phase and soft coal is today still being stored in bins constructed largely of wood boards. Plaster was frequently applied on wood furring and attached to unlined fireplaces; unprotected hot air pipes were permitted to run through the entire building in hollow spaces between wood studs and joists. No consideration whatever was given to the now well known subject of “Fire Stopping.”
As for means of egress in the event of fire, the old time hazardous ladder fire escapes, quite uniformly mandatory by building regulations throughout the country, still exist as the only means of escape on countless thousands of buildings. As we all know, even these installations were fought tooth and nail by all manner of organizations of property owners so that when civic interests finally won it was only after considerable compromise with the minimum requirements. Thus many fire escapes which were erected to comply with such requirements are merely a sham placed opposite unprotected window openings where flames shooting out from windows below might easily cut off escape.
Interior Stairway Dangerous Hazard
We are even less surprised at the great loss of life in buildings of this type of occupancy, because the most accessible and therefore, logical means of escaping fire, the interior stairway, usually has shown itself to be a dangerous fire hazard, because of it being completely surrounded by highly combustible materials. Data of the Committee on Statistics and Origin of Fires of the National Board of Fire Underwriters indicates that after eliminating the fires which are communicated by burning roofs, considerably over 90 per cent of the remainder are of interior origin.
What then is being done to safeguard the occupants of the several hundred thousand residential type of buildings scattered throughout the country, which the owners feel they cannot afford to remodel, and relative to which building codes are so often silent, because most codes when adopted apply almost exclusively to new construction? Building officials, rather than increase the ranks of those opposed to a new code by adding owners of existing buildings to the opposition are forced to confine their efforts largely to new construction.
Access to the ladder was, and still is in many cases, almost impossible and our Fire Department records are replete with instances of lives lost because of barred doors and lack of familiarity with the location of the fire escape. Moreover, those who are fortunate to reach it are frequently cut off by flames from unprotected window openings below. Thus one will frequently find that the most hazardous place in the building is the fire escape itself. Furthermore a large number of state codes require fire escapes only in buildings four stories or more in height, so that the people who choose to live in an old threestory tenement are plainly out of luck in the event of fire.
In some states hotels are required to provide rope escapes down which the guest may slide if thoroughly awake to the danger and if possessed of acrobatic instincts. Ladies and children should practice coming down hand over hand or else he sure to wear pajamas on nights when fire is imminent. Outside of the above two features, which have been designed to promote safety to life in these types of buildings, there are relatively few instances where laws have been enacted to require the owners of such old buildings to provide adequate protection excepting in those cases where non-fire-proof buildings have been remodelled for tenement and hotel occupancy.
We all know what happens when people attempt to escape down the stairway and I am calling your attention for the moment to the very serious loss of life in New York old-time tenements and in particular the fire at 514 East Fourteenth Street, New York City, which occurred on December 15, 1925, and in which five people lost their lives. The building had a fire escape, and had but one interior stairway all surrounded with wood lath and plaster, which burnt out and absolutely cut off all escape.
Sprinklers Not Suitable
There are three oustanding methods of safeguarding these old buildings, which will be discussed in turn. They devolve respectively on the use of sprinkler systems, of improved external facilities consisting of stairway fire escapes, exit stairways and smoke proof towers, and third upon the improvement of the internal means of egress, effected by remodeling the interior construction so as to confine the fire to its place of origin and to make the interior stairway a safe exit.
Sprinklers: The wonderful record made by automatic sprinklers has been written large across the pages of fire protection annals, those of the insurance companies and in even a larger measure, in the safeguarding of industry. Thousands of lives have been saved because the incipient fire in an industrial plant has been controlled before it could gain material headway. It has also insured the continuation of businesses, both large and small, which might be wiped out entirely causing great distress to entire communities whose livelihood is dependent on them. In the past 40 years it is conservatively estimated that 40,000 fires have been controlled by automatic sprinklers representing an economic savings of fully $5,000,000,000 to which might be added millions of dollars as a reasonable estimate of the economic value of the human lives saved to society.
However, it is important to note that although sprinkler pipes and sprinkler heads are not objectionable in industrial installations, they might be considered as disfiguring in apartment and hotel occupancy. Moreover, the advocates of sprinklers do not favor their installation when they are not supervised. Fire statistics reveal numerous cases of severe losses when unsupervised sprinklers were used due to the non-dependability of the human element, which must be relied upon to make effective this type of sprinkler. Being less expensive in first cost, it would undoubtedly be the one most likely to be installed in such types of buildings. Because of their greater cost it is doubtful whether legislation could ever be enacted which would require general installation of the supervised automatic type in residential occupancies.
For the reasons stated, it would seem that the use of sprinklers in residential types of buildings would in general be limited to basements where undoubtedly there is the greatest fire hazard.
Fire Escapes and Stairways
Stairway Fire Escapes: The second suggested method of improving the exit facilities of old buildings is to substitute stairway fire escapes for ladder fire escapes. This is undoubtedly an improvement, especially where there is largely women and children who have a fear of ladder escapes. However, the difficulty about expecting that the stairway escapes will solve the matter is that to make them effective they must be so located at the end of a corridor or public hall so that everyone will have opportunity to make use of them. This would undoubtedly entail considerable modeling and re-location—in many buildings a practical impossibility because of the lack of suitable areaways or offsets in the building which would accommodate them. Although owners of factory type of buildings might be required by law to remodel their buildings to accomplish this end, it is very doubtful that public opinion could ever be aroused to the extent of having this required on residential types of buildings.
Outside Exit Stairways: A considerable improvement over the stairway fire escape is the outside exit stairway connected to each story by means of an approved self closing fire door and incombustible balcony. Here again we meet with the same difficulty as with the stairway fire escape in that to be effective there must be considerable reconstruction of the building and rearrangements of the rooms. The requirements of the National Board of Fire Underwriters state “All wall openings within ten feet of such stairs shall be protected by approved self closing fire doors on doorways, and automatic or fixed fire windows on window openings. No riser on such stairs shall be nearer than four feet to any such wall opening, except to doors giving access to the same.”
The impossibility of placing these outside exit stairways so that they will not be in front of or over windows must always be taken into consideration, and when this cannot be done, some other means of egress must be developed.
Smokeproof Towers: Undoubtedly one of the most efficient means of external egress from a building is the smokeproof tower, for regardless of what happens within the building itself the occupants have a 100 per cent safe means of exit. Once off any particular floor they can descend through the stairway without leaving the stair tower until discharged safely into the alley or street. As a matter of fact, in order to get into the stairway they must actually leave the building itself, as such smokeproof towers are usually constructed either with outside balconies of steel or masonry or with vestibule entrances connecting either to one or two buildings. Normal requirements are that there shall be no openings in any wall separating the stairway from the building, but fixed or automatic fire windows sufficient for lighting purposes may be used providing they are not subject to fire exposure hazards by the same or nearby buildings. The balcony or vestibule is usually provided with a solid incombustible floor and with steel railings not less than four feet high. Another advantage of the smokeproof tower is that it provides a protected position from which firemen can attack a fire on any floor.
One reason why the enclosed stair tower is not in greater vogue is because it is seldom required by law and furthermore, it is a difficult thing to sell the idea to law-makers; it is not so hard, of course, when it comes to requiring them on new buildings but almost insurmountable obstacles seem to present themselves when they are recommended for old buildings. When built into the original walls of the old building they require an almost complete rearrangement of corridors and rooms.
Improving Interior Stairways, Corridors, Etc.: The third method of providing adequate protection for these old buildings is by improving the internal means of egress. It is quite generally agreed that the interior stairway is the most logical avenue of escape in the event of fire, and this, of course, is natural as the means of entrance would be the first to suggest itself as the way out in the event of fire; and, in improving the internal means of egress we should naturally expect that an important part of our job would be to devise construction which would accomplish the confining of the fire as well as improvement of exit facilities.
Fire quickly broke through the building illustrated and made the stairways an inferno., Tests made by the Underwriters’ laboratories at Chicago indicate that fire will break into the hollow space of a wood lath and plaster partition in about four minutes’ time. Having penetrated, it creeps through the un-fire stopped hollow spaces feeding upon the hundreds of roughened lath surfaces which bursting into flames permit the fire to sweep through unchecked long before the fire department can be summoned and arrived.
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Safeguarding Old Type Residential Buildings
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Although the motorization of fire apparatus has reduced the interval of time between the receipt of the fire alarm and the arrival of the fire apparatus to as low as two minutes, still the fire department has no control whatever over the crucial interval of time between the beginning of the fire and the sending of the alarm. At night especially, this interval might be as long as 15 minutes to a half hour so that the quick response of the department after the alarm is received counts for but little, especially when we know that combustible construction and contents will be feeding the flames for this length of time.
Corridors Should be Carefully Constructed
It is quite generally recognized in new building codes throughout the country that corridors and stairways should be constructed so as to provide at least one hour endurance against fire. Thus metal lath and plaster is particularly suited to afford this protection in old buildings. Its adaptability can readily be appreciated when it is realized that all that needs be done is to rip the wood lath and plaster off of the wood studs on the partitions surrounding the stairways and also on the underside of the ceilings used over such corridors and then to apply metal lath and plaster instead for those parts of the building. At the same time fire stops, such as baskets of metal lath filled with incombustible materials can be placed between the wood studs and joists so as to localize any fire which might break out. It should also be noted that this construction performs the two-fold function of preventing communication of fire and of maintaining a satisfactory fire exit.
Metal lath and plaster are especially adaptable for safeguarding basements in these old time buildings. Many of them have no protection whatever on the under side of the wood joists and application of metal lath and plastering is especially indicated around and over heating plants and smoke pipes and the fuel storage. This type of protection is self-contained and is always on the job, so to speak, so that at minimum cost these old time buildings can be provided with a large measure of safety.
We have also mentioned the serious hazard of open elevator shafts surrounded only by grill work. On August 7. 1920, the Elton Court Apartments at Portland, Oregon, were visited by a fatal fire which caused the death of six people. Only four days after that fire there was another one in the same city in the Glenwood Hotel. There were 67 people in this hotel, but the elevator shaft in this case was completely surrounded with metal lath and plaster which confined the fire to that opening and permitted the occupants to escape without loss of life. This, too, was an old time non-fireproof building and with the results of these two fires before them the city officials of Portland were quick in enacting legislation which would forever prevent the reoccurrance of disaster in buildings of this type.
Survey Made of Institutions
A survey has recently been made of New York State institutions. This study was made by Professor Woolson’s department of the National Board of Fire Underwriters with the recommendation of Mr. Sullivan W. Jones, State architect. This resulted in a report recommending the rehabilitation rather than the abandonment of old buildings in the state institutions. It recommended in part, the removal of ordinary plastering around stairs, exits and corridors and its replacement by construction affording one hour protection. Had this not been done it is safe to say that these buildings would soon have been condemned with great financial loss to the taxpayers who would have been called upon for large sums to repalce the old buildings with new ones.
Other materials of construction such as gypsum block, clay tile and solid metal lath and plaster partitions are adapted for use in rebuilding these old buildings. Of course, where the partitions are in good shape it is undoubtedly cheaper to re-lath and plaster on metal lath than it would be to remove the partitions and build entirely new ones, especially if the original ones were bearing partitions.
We have thus in a general way covered the subject of safeguarding old residential types of buildings from fire and in closing desire to point out that there is a special need for legislation which will give mandatory powers to municipal, county and state officials authorizing them to proceed at law whenever necessary io protect lives of those who occupy these buildings by ordering rehabilitation which will afford safety. There is an urgent need for this because tremendous depreciation of such old buildings has been permitted to go on unchecked for years largely because supervision of new construction has taken most of the time of building department officials. There are thousands upon thousands of these buildings valued at millions of dollars which might be saved to posterity if they were protected against the ravages of fire, and thus materially check the ever increasing loss which now amounts to over one-half billion dollars a year. And of transcending importance is protection which will safeguard the lives of the thousands of women and children who are annually sacrificed in these old fire traps.
The fact that buildings are of ordinary construction does not render them unsafe. It is only the lack of protection for the lumber, which has had the unfortunate effect of placing an onus on the whole. Because protected ordinary construction provides one hour safety there is thus a logical reason for taking full advantage of it not only in new buildings, but also in remodelling old ones.