Devastating fires at local building sites this summer have prompted calls for more regulation or even restrictions on wood-frame construction, which is on the rise thanks to new building codes that allow wood to be used in taller, multi-unit housing. The blazes in Dorchester, Waltham, and Weymouth drove residents into the street, threatened whole neighborhoods, and cost developers millions. But wood is cheaper, more flexible, and infinitely better for the environment than other common materials like concrete and steel. And that’s not even considering its aesthetic, historic, and frankly romantic appeal. It would be a shame to limit such a useful material when the state is trying to rapidly increase construction of affordable housing.
“Wood is one of our best, most environmentally friendly resources,’’ said Peter Weiderspahn, who teaches courses in building technology at Northeastern University’s School of Architecture. “It’s the only truly renewable building material we have.” Weiderspahn notes that most wood used in the United States is produced domestically, it is lighter and thus requires less energy to transport, and it actually sequesters the carbon that trees suck out of the atmosphere for as long as the building stands. Of course, such environmental benefits are reversed if a building burns.
The recent spate of fires has left officials sifting through the ashes for solutions. Days after a wind-whipped 10-alarm fire engulfed a 264-unit luxury housing development under construction, the Waltham City Council called for tighter state restrictions on the size of wood-frame residential buildings. Legislation could be debated at the State House this fall. Boston’s fire commissioner, Joseph Finn, called wood buildings-in-progress “nothing but a vertical lumber yard with very few protections.”
But the trouble is more with construction methods than with the material. All three of this summer’s fires occurred during a project’s most vulnerable stage: after the wood frames had gone up but before sprinkler systems were fully installed. Officials have determined that the Waltham fire was arson. The most common causes of wood-frame fires, besides arson, are errors that occur during construction: soldering of copper tubing, heat-welding rubber roof seams, electrical work. In Dorchester, the fire was caused by an exhaust pipe located too close to a wall.
A Boston Globe examination last month found several gaps in fire prevention protocols and a patchwork approach to rules and enforcement. Undoubtedly, developers should be required to submit written fire safety plans as part of the construction permitting process. Around-the-clock security, better fencing, and temporary sprinkler systems could mitigate the risk, though developers say exposed sprinklers are difficult to maintain in freezing New England winters.
But rolling back the building code to restrict wood-frame buildings to three stories would render the state’s housing production goals unachievable. And the urgency is real: A study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council says Eastern Massachusetts will need to build 435,000 new units of housing by 2040 to accommodate a growing economy.
Wood — a material used for millennia — is again at the vanguard of architecture and construction. New heavy-timber engineered varieties are more fire-resistant and can bear more weight. In fact, designers are imagining ever-taller structures made with lumber. The highest wood building in the United States today is a seven-story office and retail structure in Minneapolis designed by Michael Green, a Vancouver architect who is something of an evangelist for wood. But he is also working on a 35-story tower in Paris — what he calls a “plyscraper.”
Beautiful, sustainable, and as safe as any other material when a building is ready for occupancy, wood deserves its place in the contractor’s toolbox. Like any tool, it needs to be handled with care.Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.