Fire at new AvalonBay development in Maplewood renews debate about lightweight construction

A six-alarm fire destroyed the unfinished portion of an AvalonBay apartment complex in Maplewood this weekend, almost two years after a maintenance worker started fire with a blowtorch at another AvalonBay building in Edgewater, displacing nearly 1,000 people and leaving about 500 people homeless.

“We have worked closely with the Township of Maplewood and their building and fire departments over the past two years on the development and construction of Avalon Maplewood and we greatly appreciate their diligence and stringent attention to detail throughout the process,” said Ron Ladell, AvalonBay’s senior vice president. “Safety is our topmost priority at AvalonBay, which is why we continue to incorporate safeguards beyond what is required. AvalonBay voluntarily incorporated the safeguards of National Fire Protection Association Standard 13, a standard that is greater than what is required by the current building code, in Maplewood. This includes the installation of more sprinklers throughout the building, including in the attics, closet spaces and between the ceilings and floors. In addition, we upgraded the fire safety for these buildings by installing masonry firewalls, which are not required for this building type by the current code or NFPA 13.”

The additional fire safety enhancements have been incorporated at the 280-unit apartment development in Witherspoon Street in Princeton, Ladell said.

“The recent incident in Maplewood is very different than the situation at Edgewater, which was caused during a maintenance procedure. The Maplewood development was still under construction, and unfortunately the additional safeguards incorporated in our design were not yet fully operational,” Ladell said. “We are very appreciative of the efforts by all of the first responders from Maplewood and nearby towns that demonstrated tremendous efforts in limiting the fire damage and preventing any serious injury.”

In December, Edgewater’s zoning board granted approval to AvalonBay to rebuild its burned down building with the same number of units and floors. AvalonBay will break ground on its new Edgewater building sometime this year. The building will be constructed with the same lightweight wood-frame construction.

Lightweight wood-frame construction is popular with many developers because it is faster and less expensive to build with. The current code allows lightweight wood construction in buildings up to 60 feet tall if the first level is concrete. Safety advocates have been calling for a ban on lightweight wood construction in buildings taller than three stories, but proposed legislation has stalled.The Saturday fire has renewed the push for legislation banning lightweight construction.

Please share your thoughts on this story.

  • You’ve got the wrong meme. According to glorious leader, Christie, public schools are failure factories and public school teachers are lazy greedy thugs. Charter schools are the miracle schools with the miracle sauce. Please update your bumper sticker. (sarcasm alert)

  • News on fire safety bill S1632 / A3770:

    From the article below: “Another fire code reform movement has showed more promise in the New Jersey Legislature. Identical bills were introduced in both the state Senate (as S1632) and Assembly (as A3770), each with multiple sponsors. … Primarily the bill would prohibit certain residential lightweight wood construction in densely populated areas. In other areas, when lightweight wood construction is used, the following restrictions would apply:

    • Each story is limited to 7,000 total square feet
    • A maximum of three stories or 40 feet from ground level is permitted
    • Structures must have a fire separation of at least 30 feet
    • Automatic sprinklers must meet NFPA 13 requirements
    • A fire watch guard must be present 24 hours per day during construction; and
    • The building owner must provide notice to all residents of the fire safety hazards of lightweight wood construction.

    That fate of this bill and fire code reform proposals in the state legislature is uncertain. S1632 and A3770 were both sent to committee. However, the debate over fire code is sure to continue. Every three years, New Jersey reviews and updates its building codes. The next such review is scheduled for 2018. In the meantime, New Jersey’s fire sprinkler requirements remain unchanged and builders continue to construct large, multifamily buildings with lightweight wood trusses and NFPA 13R sprinkler systems. In terms of the Avalon, Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland has stated, ‘Legally, and this is really insane, they can build back today exactly what they had there, according to state rules.'”

    Debating Fire Sprinkler Codes After New Jersey Blaze, Brian Crimmins, Emergency Management, January 11, 2017. Brian Crimmins is a battalion chief and tour commander in the Hoboken Fire Department in New Jersey. He has an MPA from John Jay College and a B.A. from Boston College.

  • Agreed. Hard to believe any 60 foot structure would be stick built. Avalon Bay is publicly traded on the stock exchange. Magical thinking & marketing create thought that AB’s stockholders & stakeholders demand integrity, but they are after returns. period.

  • What really got me was the next to last paragraph. They actually have the gall to rebuild the Edgewater building AGAIN out of the same lightweight construction that had it burn to the ground like a tinderbox. Money-mad builders with zero regard for the human beings that will inhabit their “house of cards.”

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