Tag Archives: fire safety

Some Building Code History

Some Building Code History

I’ve reflected some in the past about Building Codes from history, where the generally accepted first code was in the Code of Hammurabi: https://www.hansenpolebuildings.com/2013/07/engineer/.

In July of 64 A.D., a great fire ravaged Rome for six days, destroying 70 percent of the city and leaving half its population homeless. According to a well-known expression, Rome’s emperor at the time, the decadent and unpopular Nero, “fiddled while Rome burned.” The expression has a double meaning: Not only did Nero play music while his people suffered, but he was an ineffectual leader in a time of crisis. It’s been pretty easy to cast blame on Nero, who had many enemies and is remembered as one of history’s most sadistic and cruelest leaders—but there are a couple of problems with this story.

ibc-codeFor one thing, the fiddle didn’t exist in ancient Rome. Music historians believe the viol class of instruments (to which the fiddle belongs) was not developed until the 11th century. If Nero played anything, it would probably have been the cithara, a heavy wooden instrument with four to seven strings—but there is still no solid evidence he played one during the Great Fire. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote Nero was rumored to have sung about the destruction of Troy while watching the city burn; however, he stated clearly this was unconfirmed by eyewitness accounts.

When the Great Fire broke out, Nero was at his villa at Antium, some 35 miles from Rome. Though he immediately returned and began relief measures, people still didn’t trust him. Some even believed he had ordered the fire started, especially after he used land cleared by the fire to build his Golden Palace and its surrounding pleasure gardens. Nero himself blamed the Christians (then an obscure religious sect) for the fire, and had many arrested and executed. But while Nero may have been guilty of many things, the story of him fiddling while Rome burned belongs firmly in the category of popular legend rather than established truth.

In reality the fire was not the fault of Nero. Narrow streets, tall buildings, combustible building materials and common walled buildings contributed to the fire’s devastation.

Nero created a new urban plan, following the fire, one which featured wider streets, restrictions on the height of houses; no common walls of buildings and homes which were constructed with fire resistant material such as stone instead of wooden pillars.

Of course to many, building codes are unquestionable safety measures which prevent repeats of historic disasters. American’s relationship with building codes has always revolved around disasters, starting with the original Boston building code which outlawed thatched roofs and wooden chimneys in 1631. Fire safety also inspired new building codes after the disastrous fires in London in 1666 and Chicago in 1871.

Over the years, new codes were created and enforced to protect neighbors from unsafe structures and address the relationships between different buildings. By 1940, three regional code organizations had emerged in the United States. In 2000, the three organizations merged and consolidated into the International Code Council (ICC), which is still active today.

The ICC has been responsible for publishing and enforcing all building codes (known as I-codes), which address specific issues such as energy use, plumbing access, and fire escapes. Today, I-Codes continue to reflect the lessons we’ve learned the “hard way.” For example, utility outages during Hurricane Sandy prompted New York City to convene a special task force and create new codes to increase and maintain access to water and electricity in residential buildings.

There is a common feeling of resistance to having to figure out exactly, and follow local building codes. Unfortunately by bucking the code, people, their beloved pets and possessions are put at great risk.  The codes are written for the safety of all of us. Do yourself and your loved ones a favor: Find out what the code says for your next building, and follow it!

Pole Building Fire Sprinklers

Turn On the Water

I was recently reading a news story online about a fire which destroyed a pole building located in a Midwest industrial park. The large building was owned by a semi-trailer delivery company, and was a total loss of all contents including their offices.

What really caught my attention was a quote from the local assistant fire chief, Mike Payne.

There were no injuries, but when you’re working in 45 degrees below zero, it doesn’t take long for people to get cold. Everything freezes,” Payne said.

Sprinkler HeadWhen I hear about a pole building burning down, especially one used for commercial purposes, it makes me wonder why the building did not have automatic fire sprinklers? With an installed cost generally of $1 to $1.50 per square foot, sprinkler systems are a bargain – cheaper than the cost of a nominal four inch thick concrete floor.

Offsetting some or all of the investment costs of the system, are the savings on building insurance premiums.

Automatic fire sprinklers keep fires small, with the majority of fires handled by only one or two sprinklers. Only sprinklers directly above fires are activated, so it isn’t like a small blaze sets off every sprinkler in a building.

Aside from firefighting and explosion fatalities, there has never been a multiple loss of life in a fully sprinklered building due to fire or smoke! Considering about 4,000 lives per year are lost in un-sprinklered buildings, compared to 20 in sprinklered – quite a tribute to sprinklers!

Besides insurance cost savings, the Building Codes allow for reduced fire-resistive requirements for structural components, longer exit travel distances (fewer doors required) and larger building areas and heights. In the end, the structural cost savings could be far greater than the investment into the sprinkler system.

Remember the quote about the cold? Although special types of sprinkler systems are available for use in areas subject to freezing, most sprinkler systems are wet pipe systems, meaning the piping is normally filled with water.  If a system or even a small portion of a system is exposed to freezing temperatures, water in the piping can turn to ice, expanding in volume and producing thousands of pounds of pressure.  Such pressures can break fittings, but can also force open the valve caps of sprinklers, resulting in apparent accidental discharge or leakage when the system subsequently thaws.

As most pole buildings are not always kept heated, if considering an automatic sprinkler system – be certain to let the provider know if the building might be below freezing. This includes cooler winter climate areas, which could be subject to power outages.

Pole Barn Fires

Break out the Marshmellows…

I get Google Alerts for any articles with pole barn or pole building in them. Pretty much every day there are one or more stories about barns burning down (think of how many houses burn down every day in the USA and a barn a day is insignificant). As sad as a burned down barn may be, there is some humor to be found in some of these stories.

From a story by Everton Bailey, Jr. at www.oregonlive.com:

“The blaze was contained to the 40-by-100 foot barn, no people were injured but a search is ongoing for possible chickens that may have been in the area.”

Were the chickens arson suspects? Trying to escape to be free range?

Nothing like barbequed chicken!

From www.journalgazette.com:

“While firefighters fought the blaze, officials realized the pole barn, near the intersection of Butler and Hillegas roads, was actually outside the city limits.”

What were the city firefighters going to do, leave the pole barn to burn down because it was “on the other side” of a line?

From an article by Jeri Thomas at www.drgnews.com:

“The Pierre Rural Fire Department responded early this morning to the report that a large structure was on fire on property east of Pierre.  Department members were summoned to put out the fire in the large pole barn about 3:45 a.m. this morning-two miles south of Highway 14 near 206th Street.” 

BBQ Sauce“Also helping at the scene was the Oahe Chapter of the American Red Cross.  No other structures are located on the old farmstead near the pole barn, but Kruger says the 65 X 120 building contained farm equipment, balers, and feed.  Also, there were pigs in the building and Kruger says some of the animals succumbed to the fire.”

The American Red Cross supplied Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbeque sauce for the ribs afterwards.

And the winner of the “Darwin Award” is in this www.thetelgraph.com article by Greg Olson:

“A rural Winchester man was injured Wednesday evening in a fire that destroyed a 40-foot by 50-foot pole barn about 8 miles east of Winchester.

Rueter said Winchester firefighters were called to the Ben Brickey farm on Ratcliff Road about 5:30 p.m., and when they arrived they found the barn engulfed in flames. “We were told that Ben Brickey was attempting to light a wood stove in the shop portion of the pole barn when diesel fuel he was using to start the fire ignited and spread to his legs and a pile of firewood,” Rueter said. “At that time, his son Dillon took his dad out of the building and put out the fire on his father’s pants.”

I am sad to hear when anyone is injured, but sometimes I just have to shake my head and wonder “what WAS he thinking?”  What more could possibly be said after this?

Be careful folks – and keep fire extinguishers handy!

The 3 Hour Firewall for Pole Buildings

Guest blog by J.A.Hansen, owner of Hansen Buildings…

There were several concurrent conferences with great speakers at the NFBA expo Mike the Pole Barn Guru, Eric (my business partner and President of Hansen Buildings) and myself recently attended in St. Louis, MO. The National Frame Builders’ Association website: www.nfba.org

gives this description:  “NFBA is the only national trade association that represents post-frame industry professionals. The association is the country’s primary source of post-frame building resources, research, networking, news and education.”

And educational it was!  Every morning there were break-out sessions with key-note speakers and top rated leaders in the post frame industry to speak on issues relating specifically to pole buildings.  I was fortunate to attend one of the best presentations this year which outlined the design and testing of a 3 hour fire wall for post frame buildings.  There have been tests for 1 hour fire walls, but not 3 hours. This test design required the fire wall framing had to be built completely out of wood, and tested in a UL laboratory under strict testing conditions.

Firewalls are sometimes required in order to enclose egress paths, often hallways.  This is so that people (or animals) trying to escape (or be rescued) from a burning building have a good chance of getting out without the building collapsing on them.  Besides testing to see if the walls didn’t let the fire through, they also were tested for structural integrity to keep the weight of the roof from collapsing and crushing whoever is inside.

Why would you perform such a test?  Number one on the list is of course for safety.  Fire marshalls and county officials have a huge responsibility in writing and enforcing requirements for buildings which will best protect the lives of those using them. Number two on the list is ease of building and cost. What has typically been done to create a firewall is using concrete blocks (8” or 10”) to build a structurally independent wall to separate a building into two completely separate areas.  This requires having to possibly hire a concrete block contractor to build the wall, which involves more time and expense overall.  Material costs are estimated at $11/square foot for a concrete wall versus $2/square foot for a wood/gypsum board fire wall.  Even adding in the labor for attaching 4 separate layers of gypsum board, the guesstimate is the wood/drywall would conservatively come in at half the price of a concrete fire wall.

Tim Royer, PE of Timber Tech Engineering, Inc., gave an enlightening presentation on the UL test he was involved in planning, and was present to observe as the fire wall was tested.

Keep in mind the wall must be “structurally independent”.  This means the wall must not depend upon the balance of the building to hold it up.

The test involved these components (my simplified explanation):

Wood columns – minimum 5-1/2 x 6 inch.

  1. Wood girts – 2×4 girts applied horizontally to the face of the columns at 16 inches on center.
  2. Wood Blocking – 2×6 inch blocking vertically applied to the column face between each girt. This intermediate blocking is applied with four 16d nails, equally spaced.
  3. Gypsum Board – (4) layers 5/8 inch thick applied horizontally.  Joints in adjacent layers are staggered a minimum 16 inches o.c.

There is more about the nailing requirements for the layers of the drywall, but suffice it to say, 4 layers with lots of nails makes for a heavy duty firewall!

Controlled fire in a UL laboratory then took the temperature up to 1600 degrees in 10 minutes and then gradually up to 1800 degrees.  There were some great videos of the testing, showing the both the effects of fire and also pressure placed on the structurally independent fire wall.  Pressure was added by using hydraulic jacks to exert pressures of up to 21,000 pounds per column.  Normal pressures calculated on a wall are 4,000 pounds per post.

The test used lots of gauges with wires inserted into the wall assembly.  So, they stoked up the fire within 3 feet of the wall assembly, and began to watch and document the results.  The results were absolutely amazing to watch on video…so come back for tomorrow’s blog on “did the wall work?”