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AvalonBay to Voluntarily Build Princeton Development to Standards That Exceed State Building Code (Updated)

A rendering of the AvalonBay project slated for the hospital site in Princeton.
A rendering of the AvalonBay project slated for the hospital site in Princeton.

Developer AvalonBay will voluntarily enhance the fire protection systems at the future Princeton apartment development on Witherspoon Street to comply with a national fire protection standard that is greater than what is required by the current state building code.

AvalonBay will use fire protection systems in its Princeton and Maplewood developments that comply with the National Fire Protection Association Standard known as NFPA 13.

The company will incorporate more sprinklers throughout the building, including in the attics, closet spaces and between the ceilings and floors. In addition, the company will upgrade the fire safety for these buildings by installing masonry firewalls, which are not required for this building type by the current building code or NFPA 13.

“AvalonBay’s decision to voluntarily hold themselves to a higher standard when building these communities is a very positive development for the Princeton and Maplewood communities,” said New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable.

Several sources confirmed today that a representative from AvalonBay met with state and county officials, including Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, yesterday.

“This clearly makes a safer building, which was what I was looking for in the first place. Princeton is still probably going to have a problem — some people in Princeton will always have a problem with the project. It is a big project, but it is also an important project,” Huges said tonight.

“AvalonBay has put a lot of thought into this project. They’ve talked to people from the state, they’ve talked to me, they’ve talked to officials in Bergen County. They’ve added sprinklers and better firewalls. That is what we wanted,” Hughes said. “They have voluntarily chosen to do things they don’t have to do.  In a lot of significant ways, they have stepped up to the plate and taken steps they didn’t have to take.”

Bergen County Executive James Tedesco made similar remarks.

“This is a great step. AvalonBay is going beyond existing building codes to better protect both people and property in these new units,” Tedesco said.

AvalonBay Senior Vice President Ron Ladell said the company is enthusiastic about its future in New Jersey.

“By continuing to work with local governmental and community leaders throughout New Jersey, we will continue to build distinctive, welcoming and safe communities,” Ladell said in a prepared statement.

AvalonBay built the 408-unit Avalon at Edgewater apartment complex in Edgewater, Bergen County that was destroyed by a five-alarm blaze Jan. 21. Maintenance men accidentally sparked the fire at the Edgewater complex and displaced about 1,000 people. Two unlicensed workers doing plumbing accidentally started the blaze with a blowtorch.

The lightweight wood construction used to build the Edgewater complex complied with state code. In the wake of the fire, Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R- Passaic, Bergen, Essex and Morris) has proposed halting all multi-family developments in New Jersey until the state’s building code can be revised.

As of Dec. 31 of 2014, AvalonBay owned or held a direct or indirect ownership interest in 277 apartment communities containing 82,487 apartment homes in eleven states and the District of Columbia, of which 26 communities were under construction and eight communities were under reconstruction.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Susan Jefferies

    A publicly traded company, Avalon Bay sees the tightening of fire and safety codes as a
    financial risk: “Lower revenue growth or unanticipated expenditures may result from our need to comply with � changes to building codes and fire and life-safety
    codes.”, from “Risk Factors, Item 1a” S&P 500 Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) Annual Report, p. 12 (2013 10K) During the Princeton process they had many opportunities to demonstrate good citizenship and good sense, but instead they sued and sued again. I would like to believe that after the Edgewater fire they have had a burning bush experience, but I don’t believe that we can count on that. Please do your part by supporting a complete and thorough review of all relevant fire and construction codes and a moratorium on approval of any new lightweight construction in New Jersey until the review of all relevant codes has been completed.

    Please voice support for Bill A4195 that requires evaluation of appropriateness of light frame construction for multiple dwellings and imposes moratorium on light frame construction until determination and recommendations are adopted.

    Please send messages of support for A4195 to those below.

    Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (asmprieto@njleg.org)

    Assemblyman Scott Rumana (asmrumana@njleg.org)
    Princeton’s State legislators:

    Assemblyman Jack M. Ciattarelli (asmciattarelli@njleg.org)

    Assemblywoman Donna M. Simon (aswsimon@njleg.org)

    Senator Christopher Bateman (senbateman@njleg.org)

    Deputy Assembly Leader Reed Gusciora (asmgusciora@njleg.org)

    Senator Shirley K. Turner (senturner@njleg.org)
    With copies to our Congresswoman

    Bonnie Watson Coleman (joel.griffith@mail.house.gov)

  • Alexi Assmus

    That’s essentially what the fire fighters do in these massive fires—have you watched any of the videos of them? The firefighters dump water on the fire from a high ladder above the building. The buildings are too big for this to put out the fire however. They are made of wood and one building is the size of a city block. Better lots of smaller buildings with spaces in between if wood is used. Nice to live in wood homes — more comfortable than non-combustible materials.

  • wait i’ve got it

    What we should do is put a huge big tank of water up above the apartments. Then if there is a fire, somebody can just pull a string, and have all the water pour down and put the flames out. It’s completely full-proof. We could also use it as a source of drinking water for the town, and maybe even do rainwater collection up there. AvalonBay should think H2O, not $$$.

  • Alexi Assmus

    Sprinklers can stop fires at their place of origin — but I agree with you that they are not enough. What is unclear to me is whether the NFPA-13 sprinklers will also be in the walls where the Edgewater fire spread.

    I believe what is needed is code similar to NYC Building Code which requires non-combustible construction in large multifamily buildings. In other words, we need restrictions on lightweight construction for large buildings.

    Check out the considered and knowledgeable review by Glen Corbett — why we have these massive fires (new technology — lightweight wood construction) and what we should do about it. http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-guest-writers/a-preventable-blaze-1.1262494?page=1

    Glenn Corbett is Professor of Fire Science at John Jay College, former Assistant Fire Chief and author of “Brannigan’s Building Construction for the Fire Service,” 5th Edition.,

    Corbett says: either limit lightweight highly flammable construction OR put in place quite complicated systems to control the fire before it becomes unstoppable (full-suppression fire sprinklers, firewalls, and fire- and draft-stopping). The problem with the second approach is that it is difficult to ensure proper installation and maintenance. For instance with regard to the stopping, Corbett writes: “From experience, ensuring proper installation and maintenance has been difficult. Past fires have shown deficiencies in these features to be at the heart of allowing raid fire spread in combustible voids.”

    As we know in the case of the Edgewater fire, proper training and supervision were lacking for maintenance workers, although for different work then installation of stopping. That’s not the maintenance workers fault, that’s management’s fault —the workers were also victims and will most likely feel guilty the rest of their lives. Police and fire officials have said the fire was an accident — the system was at fault not the individuals. This is normally the case when there is a safety failure. The way for safety systems to improve is for the human organization to be blame-free so that needed improvements will become known. Very rarely are safety failures due to the misconduct of individuals; it is usually the failure of the system. Of course when it is the misconduct of individuals, these individuals must be removed.

    Accidents will happen, mistakes will be made, and people may be malicious, and, in my opinion, this is just too dangerous when you have a building the size of a city block made out of lightweight wood.

    Corbett’s conclusion:

    “There are really only two solutions. The first would be a prohibition on wood-frame multiple dwellings, including the use of lightweight wood trusses, replacing wood structures with ones constructed of noncombustible materials such as steel and concrete. Even though this is the most desirable for firefighters, it is unlikely given the prevalence of such construction, political pressure and cost issues. Non-combustible buildings have traditionally been more expensive to construct.

    If we are to continue with wood-frame construction, then the NFPA 13R sprinkler systems must be replaced with a complete NFPA 13 fire sprinkler system (which has sprinklers everywhere, including void spaces and other places not required in NFPA 13R), masonry fire walls that run from the foundation through the roof, and incredibly vigilant oversight on the critical draft-stopping and fire-stopping in the void spaces.”

  • Alexi Assmus

    Please see videos I posted below of huge buildings constructed of lightweight wood—buildings the size of city blocks — burning to the ground in massive fires across the country, causing, when occupied, extreme hardship for inhabitants who lose everything and danger to firefighters who have only minutes to get out before the building collapses, and, even when unoccupied, jeopardizing neighboring homes (9 surrounding homes burned in the Edgewater 2000 fire).

    There have been at least six such fires in 2014-15.

    Corporate developers are not behaving responsibly. Corporate developers state in the first pages of their Annual Reports under Risks that changes to the fire and life safety codes are a risk for lower revenue growth.

    Please have some sense, Move On People. Public officials will need to drive changes to construction code to ensure public safety and eliminate these massive fires— this is being worked on currently. Assemblyman Scott Rumana has introduced a bill to the legislation for a moratorium on lightweight construction until a review of code has been completed. Speaker Prieto supports revisions to the construction code as do other state legislators.

  • Robin

    Please!! Let’s not be naive and think that AvalonBay has suddenly turned community minded! I believe they are offering this as a way to preempt any kind of serious review of the codes that would require them to sink any kind of real money into improving their plan. It seems to me that their proposals are more about containing a fire once it starts, e.g., ‘more sprinklers’ (!!) rather than making substantive changes that would prevent a fire from taking off in the first place.

  • move on people

    I’m delighted that the company is doing the right thing here but it must be frustrating for all those people who hate avalonbay to see the company behaving in an entirely responsible way by building in better fire safety measures.

  • Mary Clurman

    It’s interesting that AvalonBay will “voluntarily” upgrade — to comply with another set of minimums.

    Princeton residents long ago asked the company to upgrade from lightweight construction because of AB’s record of fires both in New Jersey and in other states, long before Edgewater. It took a fire and publicity for them to come around.

    I used to run a day care center and had to meet State minimums — I was shocked to see how minimal those standards were, well below what I as a teacher-director considered the minimum. Standards for day care seemed to be set to fit the lowest common denominator; are they equally low for residential housing? And why are construction standards for rental developments lower than for ordinary housing — because of industry pressure to keep costs down?

    If AvalonBay includes a full sprinkler system of high quality, will they also hire licensed maintenance workers, perhaps even unionized members who can speak for better standards all around?

  • Alexi Assmus

    Let’s see if I can get some of the videos of massive fires in lightweight wood construction buildings the size of city blocks to stay up on Disqus:

    1. Uniondale NY 2012 Uniondale NY 2012 (video) Truss construction fire spreads through roof.

    2. Dallas TX 2014. Dallas TX 2014 , Smoke and fire seen first in 2nd and 3rd floors; 80 people displaced; 16 fire engines deployed due to fear fire would spread. Firefighter sustained minor injuries when ceiling collapsed.

    3. Houston TX 2014 Houston TX 2014 (video) Under construction. Burnt to ground. Note fire spreading along the roof. Started by welding on roof and spread by wind.

    4. Los Angeles 2014. Under construction 526-unit complex burns. 250 firefighters respond. 110 Freeway temporarily closed. Video.

  • Alexi Assmus

    Mr. Hughes,

    Numerous fires that burn block-sized lightweight wood buildings to the ground around the country are the problem, not Princeton.

    Fire service professionals and experts are calling for limits to lightweight construction and our public officials are not listening. Contemporary lightweight construction gives fire fighters barely 5 mins to get out before the structure begins to collapse.

    This is not problem to solve with developers running around the country chatting up public officials and negotiating deals before investigations of disastrous fires are complete.

    Six buildings the size of city blocks have burned to the ground in 2014-15. Please see the the list of massive fires below. Hyperlinked press coverage and videos of the fires below are available. Please email assmus@post.harvard.edu.

    1. Edgewater, NJ 2015, occupied 240-unit lightweight wood building burnt to ground, no humans killed, other animals killed. 500 firefighters responded.1000 people displaced. Video shows fire spreading through roof. Video at 3 min 20 sec.

    2. Edgewater NJ 2000, near-completion 200-plus unit lightweight woodbuilding burned to the ground. 9 surrounding homes burned.

    3. Cliffside NJ 2014 4-story lightweight wood building under construction burns and
    ignites 3-story building nearby. Hundreds of residents evacuated.

    4. Los Angeles CA 2014 Under construction 526-unit complex burns. 250 firefighters respond. 110 Freeway temporarily closed. Video.

    5. Houston TX 2014 (video) Under construction. Burnt to ground. Note fire spreading along the roof. Started by welding on roof and spread by wind. See concerns regarding water and smoke damage in occupied buildings nearby.

    6. Uniondale NY 2012 (video) Truss construction fire spreads through roof.

    7. San Francisco, CA 2014 172-unit lightweight wood, under construction. Building completely gutted. Fire started by welding on roof. Nearby buildings damaged.

    8. Dallas TX 2014 Smoke and fire seen first in 2nd and 3rd floors; 80 people displaced; 16 fire engines deployed due to fear fire would spread. Firefighter sustained minor injuries when ceiling collapsed. Report by abc affiliate.

    9. Quincy MA 2011 24-unit wood structure. Rapid fire spread
    throughout the trussed attic space. Believed to be started by a charcoal grill
    on first floor patio

  • Alexi Assmus

    Two of the most important commentaries by fire experts in the wake of the Edgewater fire are here. If you can’t access the links and would like to view them please email assmus@post.harvard.edu

    1. Opinion: Apreventable blaze? by Glenn P. Corbett. Associate Professor of Fire Science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and former Assistant Chief of
    the Waldwick Fire Department. He is the author of “Brannigan’s BuildingConstruction for the Fire Service,” 5th Edition.” NorthJersey.com, Feb 1, 2015.

    http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-guest-writers/a-preventable-blaze-1.1262494?page=1

    and

    2. Video interview of Professor Jack Murphy, John Jay College and Fire Engineering Board member Discussing Huge Edgewater (NJ) Fire on abc7 Quotes from interview
    (starting around 8:30): “How much is politics involved with changing these codes .. [Murphy] There always is, but there is a national code out there … that we meet every three years to modify codes, we have adopted in New York after the World Trade Center, and we just changed it again, and that aspect of things, but it needs more presence of the fire service, … we need a larger voice, there are a handful of us trying to do this nationally”

    http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2015/01/murphy-edgewater-nj-fire.html

  • Alexi Assmus

    Mr. Hughes, The block-sized buildings burning to the ground around the country
    are the problem, not Princeton. Please view the videos of numerous fires that destroyed buildings the size of city blocks below. This is no problem to solve by developers running around the state chatting up public officials and negotiating solutions before investigations of disastrous fires are completed.

    1. Edgewater, NJ 2015, occupied 240-unit lightweight wood building burnt to
    ground, no humans killed, other animals killed. 500 firefighters responded. 1000 people
    displaced. Video shows fire spreading through roof. Video
    at 3 min 20 secf

    2.
    Edgewater NJ 2000
    ,
    near-completion 200-plus unit lightweight wood building burned to the ground. 9
    surrounding homes burned.

    3. Cliffside NJ 2014, 4-story
    lightweight wood building under construction burns and ignites 3-story building
    nearby. Hundreds of residents evacuated.

    4. Los Angeles CA 2014,
    Under construction 526-unit complex burns. 250 firefighters respond. 110 Freeway temporarily closed. Video.

    5. Houston TX 2014 (video) Under construction.
    Burnt to ground. Note fire
    spreading along the roof. Started by welding on roof and spread by wind. See
    concerns regarding water and smoke damage

    in occupied buildings nearby.

    6.
    Uniondale NY 2012
    (video) Truss
    construction fire spreads through roof.

    7. San Francisco, CA 2014 172-unit
    lightweight wood, under construction. Building completely gutted. Fire started by welding on roof. Nearby buildings damaged.

    8. Dallas TX 2014 ,
    Smoke
    and fire seen first in 2nd and 3rd floors; 80 people
    displaced; 16 fire engines deployed due to fear fire would spread. Firefighter
    sustained minor injuries when ceiling collapsed. Report by abc affiliate .

    9. Quincy MA 2011 24-unit wood
    structure. Rapid fire spread throughout the trussed attic space. Believed to be
    started by a charcoal grill on first floor patio

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