In fire aftermath, reforms push up against industry norms

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EDGEWATER, N.J. (AP) — The fire that destroyed most of a large apartment complex in northern New Jersey last month has prompted talk of legislation to toughen building codes, an effort that would butt up against long-established building practices like the use of lightweight wood.

The Jan. 21 blaze tore through the Avalon at Edgewater along the Hudson River, displacing about 1,000 people and destroying 240 apartment units. Authorities said the fire was started accidentally by workers using a blowtorch during plumbing repairs at the complex. There were no fatalities or serious injuries.

Fire officials said the fire was worsened by lightweight materials, such as engineered wood, and by an open, truss roof style. One state legislator, Republican Assemblyman Scott Rumana, proposed a bill this week that would put a freeze on permits for new multi-family homes that use lightweight wood.

Changing the types of materials used in building apartment complexes similar to the Avalon would be a significant departure. The type of lightweight wood used in the Avalon and countless other buildings around the country dates back to the 1970s, said Daniel Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer for the federal government.

"All wood burns; it doesn't matter if it's solid wood or little chunks glued together," Madrzykowski said. The difference, he said, is that solid wood takes more energy from a fire to ignite and will burn longer before it loses its strength.

Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chair of New Jersey's Fire Safety Commission, said legislation should focus on fire suppression systems, particularly sprinklers.

"The horse is out of the barn on lightweight construction; it's the state of the art in building today," he said. "It would be impossible to mandate construction with non-lightweight material at this point in time. But we have the necessary augmentation to lightweight construction, and that is sprinkler systems."

There has been no indication that developer AvalonBay Communities violated any building codes or that the Avalon's sprinklers weren't working, though fire officials have said the codes didn't require sprinklers in rooms under a certain size. Wisniewski said he'd like to see them required in all areas.

Marcus Marino, a New York-based architect and developer who has consulted on New York City building codes, said he's surprised that the fire spread in a building equipped with sprinklers.

"We need to know, were the systems working? What architectural codes was the building built under? And was it built according to the architect's plan?" Marino said.

Building codes in New Jersey are reviewed and updated every three years. The state is required by law to adopt the national model codes published by the International Code Council, developed with input from insurance companies, firefighters, developers and other stakeholders.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat and fire code official, said lawmakers hope to have concrete proposals in the next few weeks.

He and others stressed that a variety of fire safety measures need to be reviewed, including sprinklers, wall materials, alarms and barriers that keep fires from spreading. Wisniewski called for automatic alarm systems that notify fire officials immediately; at the Avalon, a preliminary investigation determined that the workers tried to subdue the blaze themselves and didn't call 911 for about 15 minutes.

AvalonBay Communities didn't comment Friday, but referred to a previous statement that the complex was built with "wood frame construction, a standard, common, and safe construction method for multifamily housing used throughout the United States."

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