Did wooden construction feed Dorchester fire?
The $45 million apartment building that was gutted by a six-alarm fire in the Ashmont section of Dorchester on Wednesday is precisely the sort of housing that many in Boston’s development community say the city needs more of: mid-rise, mixed-income, near the T.
And built almost entirely out of wood.
Projects like the six-story Treadmark, where fire crews battled a fierce blaze for hours on Wednesday, are popping up all over Boston’s outer neighborhoods and inner suburbs, providing a relatively affordable way to tackle the city’s housing crunch.
At five or six stories of wood framing above a podium of concrete or steel, they’re cheaper to build than high-rises, but allow developers to pack in more units than Boston’s traditional stock of two-families and three-deckers.
And the Treadmark, which sits on Dorchester Avenue one block from the Ashmont Red Line station, came with about $10 million in city, state, and federal subsidies. That funding enabled the developer, Boston-based Trinity Financial, to set most of its 83 apartments and condos at prices affordable to lower- and middle-income residents — a boon to a part of Dorchester that’s growing pricier all the time.
“Treadmark exemplifies the type of mixed-income and transit-oriented housing development that is needed in neighborhoods across our city,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at its groundbreaking last year.
Jill Grozalsky, 29, was planning to move into one of the condos in August. Now, she said, she will likely remain in her Brighton apartment if the Treadmark remains uninhabitable.
“It’s upsetting obviously,” Grozalsky said by telephone.
But, she added, “I trust the builders. I know they’ve done a lot of stuff around Boston.”
At the same time, Grozalsky said she’s “just not convinced [of] the structural integrity of the building anymore.”
The building was nearly finished, with the first 17 residents of affordable apartments set to move in next month. The sprinkler system was installed but not yet active, with inspections planned for later this week. Now Trinity — which said it has insurance on the project – will likely have to start over.
“We are fully committed to making sure this project gets rebuilt as quickly as possible,” said Jim Keefe, a veteran affordable housing developer and Ashmont resident who spent years planning and financing the project before launching construction in 2016. It followed a similar-sized building across the street, The Carruth, which Trinity opened in 2008.
As this sort of wood-frame development has become more popular around the country, concerns have grown about fires during construction, before sprinklers and other safety systems are fully operational.
Dozens of similar buildings have burned down over the last few years, according to data tracked by a concrete industry trade group pushing for more stringent fire-protection rules. They include a huge apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles in late 2014 and a Raleigh, N.C., project that was incinerated in March in one that biggest fires in that city’s history.
The problem isn’t so much the wood as it is human error, said Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist with the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association. Developers and contractors are pushing to build housing fast, and at the lowest-possible cost. That can lead to mistakes, he said. But in a nearly built building, a small mistake can cause a big fire.
“If you don’t have the fireproofing, you don’t have the standpipes, you don’t have the sprinklers, you can start a small fire and it doesn’t take long for stuff to go up in flames,” he said.
When asked if builders at Treadmark had followed proper procedures, Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn said the project was “well permitted.”
The blaze, which began at about 2:30 p.m., appears to have started on the top floor, Finn said, but it was too early Wednesday evening to pinpoint a cause. It moved fast through the building, Finn said, and heavy air conditioning units on the roof buckled, making it unstable and forcing fire crews to back off the building.
“Because of the lightweight construction [materials] the building started to collapse,” said Finn, who termed it a “very dangerous building” for firefighters and said more collapses could come Wednesday night.
The intensity of the blaze struck neighbors as they watched from nearby.
“It was like an inferno, when you blow out the candles and the candles light back up,” said Selena Penix, who lives around the corner. “Unbelievable.”
One construction worker was treated for chest pains, but no one else was hurt.