September 19, 2017
Yet another under-construction residential complex nearing completion has been ravaged by fire, this time in the South Shore community of Weymouth, Massachusetts. In the early morning hours of Sept. 14, a four-alarm fire at the Woodstone Crossing development in the Union Point neighborhood claimed the second of four residential buildings planned for the former site of the South Weymouth Naval Air Station. The four-story, 50-unit building was 90 percent completed and set to welcome occupants in about a month. At the time of the fire, the building’s sprinkler system had been installed, but was not yet operational. Early reports indicate that the building, which was an all-wood construction, is a total loss. An investigation into the cause of the blaze is ongoing.
The Weymouth fire follows close on the heels of similar blazes in Dorchester and Waltham over the summer. Already, comparisons are being drawn between the fires, and particular attention is being paid to the fact that the buildings destroyed by these fires were all constructed primarily of wood. Among other alarming parallels emerging are the difficulties encountered by first responders fighting raging fires in densely packed developments and disruptions to surrounding neighborhoods and infrastructure caused by the blazes.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
On June 28, fire broke out at the nearly complete, but yet-to-be occupied, Treadmark building in Dorchester’s Ashmont neighborhood. Fire spread quickly through the 83-unit, mixed condominium/apartment building, consuming the mostly wood building and causing the roof to collapse under the weight of air conditioning units. At the time of the fire, sprinklers had been installed in the six-story building, but were not yet activated. Authorities ultimately concluded that the Dorchester fire was caused when an improperly installed exhaust pipe ignited combustible materials. While the heat-bearing pipe should have been at least a foot away from any combustible materials, it appears it was a mere three inches away. The Boston fire commissioner’s report revealed that construction workers on site on the day of the fire delayed in calling the fire department for nearly an hour and a half after they first smelled smoke in the building. This delay allowed the fire to escalate to six-alarms before it was ultimately knocked down.
In the predawn hours of July 23, a ten-alarm conflagration consumed a residential complex under construction on the banks of the Charles River in downtown Waltham. Fire departments from no fewer than 12 neighboring communities were called upon to extinguish the blaze, the rapid spread of which was accelerated by stronger-than-normal winds. Hundreds of local residents, including many elderly persons, were evacuated from neighboring buildings. In addition to the complex itself, a local auto body shop was destroyed, along with at least 20 vehicles. Prior to the fire, the development consisted of a five-story building, constructed primarily of wood, containing 264 luxury rental units. Initially permitted in 2015, the project was in the final stages of construction on the morning of the fire.
While early reports suggested that the Waltham fire was not suspicious, in early August, officials ruled the fire was arson. A reward of $100,000 was offered by the project’s owner and general contractor for information leading to the conviction of the person(s) responsible. No suspects or arrests in connection with the Waltham fire have been announced publicly. Damages have been reported to be a whopping $110 million.
Common Denominator: Lightweight Wood Construction
In recent years, an increasing number of developers in the Boston area have eschewed the use of steel in mid-rise residential construction projects in favor of cheaper, lighter-weight materials, including wood. While these materials are attractive from an economic perspective, their susceptibility to fire — particularly while a structure is under construction — is an issue that has sparked serious concern. Although wood has long been a building material of choice in New England and elsewhere, the adoption in 2009 of the International Building Code in Massachusetts paved the way for wood to replace steel in many new, large-scale construction projects. Current state building codes permit wood-framed buildings up to six stories tall. This trend has alarmed some local officials in Greater Boston. In the wake of the Waltham fire, the city’s mayor, Jeannette McCarthy, went on record calling wood frame construction “idiotic” and “insane.”
The type of wood used and style of construction in large-scale residential development projects have also garnered attention recently. Boston’s fire commissioner has alluded publicly to the fact that the Treadmark Building in Dorchester was constructed using smaller cuts of lighter-weight lumber, which are less fire-resistant than larger, heftier cuts. Other commentators have noted that using truss-style construction instead of solid wood construction results in increased void spaces where fires can grow and spread.
Too Close For Comfort
Construction using highly combustible materials is particularly concerning when the buildings being constructed are densely packed together or abut major thoroughfares. In the wake of the Waltham fire, concerns were raised about the gutted complex having been too large and having insufficient means of ingress and egress. Adding to the concern was the Waltham complex’s location immediately adjacent to the Charles River, which prevented fire crews from accessing certain sections of the property. In Weymouth, difficulties procuring enough water to fight the blaze forced first responders to run water lines across the commuter rail tracks, disrupting service on the Plymouth and Kingston lines — both heavily traveled commuter routes.
The fires in Dorchester, Waltham — and now Weymouth — are stark reminders of the risks faced by large development projects that are in the course of construction. These structures are particularly vulnerable to the extent fire suppression systems and alarms are not yet up and running. Also, the lack of round-the-clock surveillance at unoccupied locations also presents opportunities for fires to intensify undetected for hours. Both the Waltham and Weymouth fires began in the early morning hours, under cover of darkness.
Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to prevent all course-of-construction losses. As the Dorchester fire reveals, human error (e.g., the lack of timely reporting of a fire) can play a major role in fire losses regardless of the precautionary measures taken. However, state and local authorities, as well as insurance companies, should re-examine these risks and evaluate whether improvements can be made to the way they are addressed.
It remains to be seen whether the triumvirate of devastating Massachusetts losses will have an impact on building codes, construction practices or the underwriting of construction risks; however, simply ignoring the blaring alarms would be both foolish and costly. At the very least, a commission should be formed to investigate why these fires are occurring with alarming frequency.
 Paulin, Benjamin, “Officials Cast Wary Eye On Wood-Frame Complexes”, The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA) 1 (July 27, 2017).