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American Wood Council
Fire Safety Facts

Get the Facts on Wood Multifamily Construction & Fire Safety

Some in the design community have been contacted with a "report"1 that includes inaccurate claims about wood. While its bias toward competitive materials and goal of attacking wood is clear, it has nevertheless generated questions and requests for clarification. Below we correct the inaccurate competitive claims:

 

Claim: "An average of 400 men, women and children or infants are killed or seriously injured each month in the United States. In addition to the 400, firefighters face a daily risk to death or injury as well." Fact: National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data indicate that 405 civilian deaths occurred in all apartment structures for the entire year of 2015.2 The NFPA data does not indicate in which construction types these unfortunate deaths and injuries occurred.
Claim: "Wood-constructed apartment fires have accounted for over 3 million blazes which have taken more than 20,000 lives here at home during the past 35 years." Fact: The statistic cited is for all apartment construction types – steel, concrete, wood, etc., and not, as claimed, just wood. Most residential fire deaths and injuries occur from the burning of furnishings and contents in our homes and apartments, not from the structural materials that burn later in fire progression. The same NFPA statistics show a steady decrease in apartment fires, by about 34%, and annual deaths have fallen about 60% over the past 35 years.2
Claim: "I know of no structural fires that have occurred in a light steel framed apartment, hotel, dorm, or military barracks." Fact: From 2006-2015, approximately 61% of apartment buildings were constructed using wood framing. There were not many steel apartment buildings constructed in the U.S., just 17% including high rise, so there are fewer opportunities for fires to occur in these types of buildings. But steel buildings are not immune to fire. A Fire Engineering article on the dangers of lightweight steel construction examined a single-family steel residence that collapsed due to fire.3 In Dubai, where steel construction is more common, there have been four major steel building high-rise fires in apartment buildings in the last few years.4
Claim: "Steel is the only framing material that has a 500+ year life cycle and offers a reprieve from the vicious build-destroy-rebuild cycle fires cause." Fact: A study by the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute looked at the longevity of buildings in Minneapolis and found that wood buildings were typically the oldest – the majority older than 75 years. In contrast, 80% of the steel buildings demolished were less than 50 years old.5
Claim: "The Worldwatch Institute, in its Reforesting the Earth paper, estimated that the earth needs at least 321 million ACRES of trees planted just to restore and maintain the productivity of soil and water resources, annually remove 780 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere and meet industrial and fuel wood needs in the third world. For every ton of new-wood growth, about 1.5 tons of CO2 are removed from the air and 1.07 tons of life-giving oxygen is produced." Fact: U.S. wood products are manufactured from sustainably harvested trees, mandated by state requirements and certification programs. These same wood products remove carbon from the atmosphere. From 1953 to 2011, in a time of expanding population and increasing demand for homes, paper products and energy, the total volume of trees grown in the U.S. increased by 50%.6 The carbon stored in these forests has increased at a corresponding rate. The wood products also sequester additional CO2. According to the EPA, the net growth in U.S. forests after use for products offsets 13% of total U.S. CO2 emissions annually.7
Claim: "Another pointed difference between the safety of wood and steel is that steel has gained strength through advanced manufacturing over the years while wood has weakened due to smaller and younger harvests. Engineered light steel framing is not based on outdated old-growth (historical) wood design tables that do not represent the timber harvested for product largely used today." Fact: Design values for wood products used in structural applications are established using internationally-recognized standards based on significant testing and monitoring of full-size products. In fact, wood is the only major building material for which design values are based on full-scale testing, without extrapolation from small laboratory specimens. And, while new engineered wood products like prefabricated wood I-joists and structural composite lumber are made from wood fiber from smaller and younger trees, these products are manufactured in highly-controlled processes and full-scale tested to ensure they meet even higher strength and stiffness properties.

 

The American Wood Council focuses its resources on working with building code and fire safety officials, toward delivering superior building performance and protecting building assemblies from fire. Learn more at constructionfiresafetypractices.com and awc.org.

 

1 Edward di Girolamo, P.E., CEO of The Steel Network (April 2017). An Even Playing Field.
2 http://www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/fire-statistics/fires-by-property-type/residential/apartment-structure-fires. Accessed April 17, 2017.
3 http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-159/issue-6/features/the-dangers-of-lightweight-steel-construction.html. Accessed April 18, 2017.
4 April 28, 2012, the 40-story Al Tayer Tower; November 18, 2012 Tamweel Tower; February 21, 2015, The Marina Torch; December 31, 2015, The Address. All from: http://gizmodo.com/when-will-dubai-fix-its-burning-skyscraper-problem-1751398645. Accessed April 18, 2017.
5 Survey on Actual Service Lives for North American Buildings, FPInnovations, Proceedings, 10th International Conference on Durability of Building Materials and Components, 2005
6 U.S. Forest Service 2010 Resources Planning Act Assessment.
7 Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2013, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (p. ES-20) (April, 2015).

 

 
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