The Issues Don’t Change

by Don Friedman on April 9, 2018

It’s possible to spend an incredibly depressing afternoon browsing through the technical reports of the United States Fire Administration. You will find report after report after report describing how fires spread in buildings where fire spread was supposedly taken into account. It seems as if we will never learn some simple lessons for which there has been ample supporting data for over one hundred years.

The first link above describes the Meridian Plaza fire in 1991, which was supposed to be the end of the argument about sprinklering high-rise buildings. Sprinklers do not, in general, put out fires but they can be very efficient at slowly or stopping fire spread. The fire at Meridian Plaza was spreading without hindrance until it got to the floors that had sprinklers. The laws that came out of this and subsequent fires are fine, but of course only apply in their entirety to new buildings, with existing buildings being grandfathered to varying degrees.

Grandfathering is a touchy subject. We all want the benefit of the latest research into safety; we all want to avoid the disruption and cost of ripping apart every building when the code changes. Grandfathering rules are a compromise that eases the new regulations into place and, like any compromise, they can lean too far in one direction or another. I’m one of the people who believes that basic safety systems should have limited grandfathering. It’s been 27 years since Meridian Plaza. That’s long enough for any property owner to deal with sprinklering.

Here are the most important lessons learned at the dawn of the high-rise age, based on various fires 1880-1910, with the culmination of the hard-earned knowledge coming in 1911 at the Triangle fire. Everything learned since then is helpful but less vital, or, worse, one of the old lessons learned again:

  • Base building structure has to be protected from the heat of fires. All structural materials will fail if kept hot enough long enough.
  • Egress paths have to be protected from heat and independent of other uses.
  • Facades have to have enough fire resistance to withstand heat to prevent floor-to-floor fire spread up the exterior.
  • Interior vertical openings, even ones as small as the goop around a drain pipe, have to be sealed to prevent vertical fire spread.
  • Interior shafts have to be able to resist fire spread from the outside in and from the inside out. The tops of shafts are particularly critical.
  • Automatic sprinklers slow or prevent horizontal fire spread more effectively than anything else. The distant runner-up is compartmentalization that includes automatic doors.
  • Fire-fighters need full access to the interior and, in tall buildings, standpipes.

An Arch Undermined

April 3, 2018

That’s a reasonably good-looking brick arch. Why is it shored? The short answer is found by looking at the left spring-point of the arch, conveniently obscured by the shadow of a vertical pipe. There’s a gap between the base of the arch and the pier below – the curve of the lower edge of the […]

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Maybe It’s Okay

March 30, 2018

Almost anything taken to an extreme is bad. If we say every building is worthy of preservation, then we condemn the centers of our cities to obsolescence as all development is forced elsewhere; if we say nothing is, then we lose the physical presence of our past. This is not a particularly deep thought, but […]

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When Technology Fails

March 24, 2018

It’s possible that the weather app on my phone was incorrect on Thursday morning. Click to enlarge and shake your head sadly.

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Misleading Patterns

March 5, 2018

If we interpret the visible pattern literally, it looks like the leak that led to the rusting is worst at the bottom and least bad at the top. Thinking about it for a second leads to the almost-obvious conclusion that we can’t really tell about the top, because water will run or drip off the […]

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Name That Material

February 7, 2018

That fuzzy thing that takes up most of the center of the photo? It’s one side of an old wet wall in this abandoned building. It’s a gypsum block partition, about halfway to reverting to being raw gypsum from its processed block state. Beautiful, in a morbid kind of way.

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Clickbait Headlines

January 19, 2018

The failure of the spillway at the Oroville Dam in California was a big story last year. The spillway failure had the potential to cause an overall failure of the dam, which would have been catastrophic. Emergency measures to lower the water behind the dam and repair the spillway worked, and a disaster was averted. […]

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Common Problems

January 18, 2018

The latest issue of the CROSS (Confidential Reporting on Structural-Safety) newsletter is out and I had a weird feeling of déjà vu while reading it. In the same order as within the newsletter, the topics include: Commentary on the rather grim UK government review of fire safety triggered by the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, Report […]

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Safety Is An Essentially Contested Concept

December 21, 2017

That’s a view of the wreckage of the excursion steamer General Slocum, run aground in the Bronx after burning in the East River. Over 1000 people died during that incident, so I think it’s safe to say the ship was not safe. I recently came across the definition of an essentially contested concept, and I think […]

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The Meaning of Failure

November 27, 2017

Trigger warning: The blog post below includes discussion of death in building failures. Definitions of structural engineering tend to be positive, as they should be. Safely and economically designing structures…that sort of thing. Engineers are, amazingly enough, human and prefer to think about success rather than failures. I’ve been working on a paper for the […]

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