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PCA: Los Angeles blaze calls building codes into question

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World Cement,

The fire that ruined buildings and snarled traffic in downtown Los Angeles this week may not have happened ten years ago, say the PCA. Loosening of the building codes and the increasing importance on low-cost construction is putting Los Angeles and other areas at risk.

“Taller and larger wood buildings are part of trend to relax fire protection provisions in building design and construction to reduce costs,” says Stephen S. Szoke, PCA senior director of codes and standards. “It saves on initial costs by using cheaper building construction than traditional non-combustible materials such as concrete, masonry or steel and puts buildings under construction at a greater risk of fire.”

The model building code used as the basis for most city and state building codes is the International Code Council International Building Code (IBC). The 2012 edition of the IBC limits the height of load-bearing combustible construction to four stories for residential construction. A building using load-bearing walls of combustible wood construction can have a total height of five stories if the building is sprinklered and at least the first floor is constructed of fire resistance rated noncombustible construction, such as concrete or masonry. But, a sprinkler requirement cannot protect the building and structures around if a fire breaks out during construction.

Structures built with non-combustible materials prevent the spread of fire, even when a sprinkler system fails – as can happen in an earthquake or when a building is still under construction and the sprinkler system has not yet been installed. In 2007 when construction was at an all-time high, the most common form of five- and six-story residential construction used load-bearing concrete masonry walls with precast concrete floors. 

“Common sense shows that buildings built of non-combustible materials are not at the same risk of fire damage,” says Szoke.  “According to a recent National Fire Protection Association report, during a five-year span, departments responded to nearly 830 construction fires. Aftermath pictures routinely show that it is only the wood portion that burned away. Concrete staircases and elevator shafts are still intact. The Los Angeles fire only caused structural damage. If codes are not changed, the next one could cause loss of life.”

Adapted from press release by

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