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Plane crash finally shows safety advantage in lightweight construction. But collapse video at fire tells the real story.

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More on Loudoun County fire from Leesburg Today 

More on Fairfax County plane crash

At the top of this post, on the left, the picture from a TV news chopper of what a pilot and passenger walked away from after the plane they were in crashed into an apartment building in Herndon, Virginia early this morning. As an astute reader pointed out, finally we see a safety advantage of lightweight construction. If that roof had been made of dimensional lumber, those on the plane would likely have been killed or seriously injured. Okay, let’s chalk up a save for the builders.

On the right, another TV chopper picture from a few hours earlier and about 12 miles away in neighboring Loudoun County. It shows a more typical image of lightweight construction, taken during a fire. If you were a 20th century, pre-1980s firefighter and saw this before you at a single-family home wouldn’t you guess there had been something more than a fire to cause this damage and the scarring on the home next door? Maybe an explosion fueled by natural gas or propane?

Of course, that’s not the case here. It was just a typical daytime house fire in the 18900 block of Castleguard Court in the Potomac Station neighborhood near Leesburg. As you will see in the video immediately below from WJLA-TV/ABC7, the fire caused a good portion of the home to collapse. 

Throughout North America, on multiple occasions each day, the building industry gets to show off the great advantages of modern home and apartment construction. While saving the lives of two people on an airplane is a rarity, the most significant advantage seems to be that builders get a second change to construct the same house all over again when fire strikes. Do you think anyone has stats for comparison on the number of complete rebuilds after pre-1980s fires versus now?

Now, listen to the discussion at yesterday’s fire in the video below from Robin B. The neighbors are all shocked at how quickly the fire spread and destroyed the home. The firefighters in Loudoun aren’t shocked. They’ve seen it time and again (see videos from 2007 and 2004 at bottom of this post). Their fire chief and many other fire chiefs in Virginia have been to Richmond repeatedly over the last 20-years, in greatly unsuccessful efforts to get the politicians to listen to the fire experts instead of the building construction lobby on issues like construction materials, home separation and residential sprinklers.

I have no clue whether any such changes would have made a difference in yesterday’s fire. What I do know is that the building industry continues to sell those who make our laws and form our codes a bunch of crap that new construction doesn’t burn any differently than old construction and that the only protection the public needs is a smoke alarm (something the industry told us we DIDN’T need in the 1970s).

It’s time the citizens, particularly those who have lost their modern home to fire or had homes damaged because of a fire in a neighbor’s house, start their own lobby. They need to show up in Richmond and every other state capital and demand that if they can’t have homes that don’t crumble under routine fire conditions, that at least they should be protected by residential sprinklers, more distance from their neighbor’s home and outside wall assemblies that reduce fire spread.

I know I’m in a fantasy world and just dreaming. The citizens aren’t going to rise up. Even if they did they don’t have the money behind them and the clout of the building lobby. But those of us who are old enough, all dreamed way back in the mid-20th century that, by now, we would be living in a world similar to the cartoon show “The Jetsons”. We would all have robot maids, flying vehicles and, of course, Skypad Apartments. Instead, our so-called modern homes aren’t based on 21st century ideas. They are really throwbacks to the 19th and 18th centuries to a time before we figured out there were actually things we could do to slow down the spread of fire in an effort to keep homes and communities from being destroyed.

To sum up, the smartest engineering minds in the construction industry came up with buildings and homes that have been proven to save lives in the event of a plane hitting the roof. Hooray for them. But if fire strikes, you’re just screwed.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • Amazed

    Dave, it goes beyond just the housing construction. Interior materials haven’t helped any. NIST did a great comparison video of an “old” room vs a “new” room, using older, natural fabrics & wood etc, vs new synthetic materials. From ignition to flashover was only 3 minutes 40 seconds in the “new” room vs. 29 minutes 25 seconds in the legacy room. Lightweight construction doesn’t stand a chance without some sort of supression system. Even people are lucky to get out alive anymore.

  • FF3

    You hit the nail on the head, Dave. The only reason the home builders can do what they want and get their way is because of the almight dollar. They have the money to hire attorneys and pay off politicans, but they cant afford to put sprinklers in homes?…BS. The only thing they are interested in, is their bottom line figures, and how many vacations they can take, at the expense of civilians’ and firefighters’ lives, all-the-while, saying their is nothing different about the way they build houses today. Its blood on their hands.

  • Jeff Flippo Chief Fire Marshal (Retired) Loudoun County F & R

    Until the fire service has the funding and the power like the building industry currently enjoys, nothing will change. I have testified over and over again in Richmond about lightweight construction and the need for residential sprinklers but we are at a terrible disadvantage. I can assure you that the next time we’re discussing the problems with lightweight construction, the building industry will trump anythng we say with yeah but you can fly airplanes into them and they don’t fall down, and our elected and appointed officials will just smile and nod and nothing will change.

  • Rich Schaffer

    sad to hear the response from the home owners…I specialize in historic preservation (on my day off)…. Every time I see a new home listed as “brick construction” it pisses me off bcs new homes are NOT brick, they are brick façade over lightweight construction- or worse, cheap vinyl. Sorry folks but anyone who buys a new house of modern construction needs to be prepared for the harsh reality that the home is so poorly built it most likely will not outlast the 30 year mortgage. Or it will burn down VERY quickly in the event of a fire. Or blow away in a storm.

  • Fire21

    Excellent compilation of videos and written reporting, Dave, my hat’s off to you. I just don’t know, though, how we could reach the populace to get this message across. It’s been tried all over the country by the Fire Service and by the news media. People are stuck between a rock and a hard place…they need a place to live, and they need it cheap. These days, full dimensional lumber probably isn’t available, and costs would be too high. Older building methods (nails and long-cut lumber) would be too expensive. Besides, building codes RQUIRE engineered trusses and all. Most folks believe they live fire-safe, so don’t worry much until they see things like this.

    Just keep up the good work, Dave…maybe one day one of us KICs will be able to show some of this stuff to someone who cares AND has authority.

    • Jim

      I respectfully disagree. We just moved into our new house which we built ourselves. It has vaulted ceilings and nice open space. With the exception of the floor joists it is all dimensional lumber and sheathed in plywood. In hindsight I wish we’d used dimensional lumber on the floor joists as well. It did cost more money to build, but not a lot more. But we have a sturdy house that doesn’t shudder in the winter storms or bounce around when you walk. It is only when people consider the bottom line cost as the only factor that the current building trends are acceptable. We have a population that would rather have a 3,000 sqft lightweight construction home which won’t last instead of a 2,000 sqft home of solid construction that their grandchildren could raise a family in. The sacrifice tomorrow’s security for today’s image of high living.

  • SaidItBefore

    More smoke detectors are needed. More battery checks are needed. Faster dispatch and turnout times are needed. Faster hose lays are needed.

    • Anonymous

      Saiditbefore….your comments make nooo sense. fire starts on the outside, do you have detectors hanging on your exterior walls!?!? faster dispatch and turnout? the entire first alarm was staffed and on the street in 2 minutes or less. 2 engines and 2 trucks show up 5 minutes or less after dispatch. do me a favor, next time predict the location for us and we’ll just sit at that address and wait all day. faster hose lays? the 1st due engine secured it’s own water and was flowing 800-1000 gpms within 5 mins of arrival. there was no stopping that fire my friend. it had control before the crews arrived.

  • edg

    Testiying in Richmond is only half the story. While Dave is correct that the public is going to have a tough time fighting the builder’s lobby, there are still steps each fire department can take to raise the public’s awareness:
    1) A joint effort between the Fire Chiefs Association and the firefighters unions to produce a CD of NIST demonstrations – and hand them out in the entire neighborhood after a light weight construction collapse;
    2) Produce a bifold, illustrative panphlet to be ditributed in all new communities – good time for fire companies to visit a new neighbor, pre-fire plan and hand out the panphlets;
    3) Engage the media – both locally and nationally with well thought out press releases on the subject;
    4) Ensure PIO’s include lighweight construction as part of their press conference at an incident;
    5) Have several departments – say Loudon, Fairfax, etc – actually have a live burn demonstration comparing types of construction – time consuming, costly but highly illustrative;
    6) Have the Fire Marshall’s reports on incidents include type of constuction and whether it contributed to the amount of damage incurred.
    Will any of this happpen? NO – the gate was opened years ago to light weight construction and the fire service just looked on. The mentality in the fire service continues to be “we just deal with the cards we are dealt” – proactive isn’t in the vocabularly. Francis Brannigan is probably rolling in his grave with anger!

  • PCL

    What amazes me is that people continue to buy these houses without seeking any assurance that they are safe, and that isurance companies continue to insure them. It takes a fresh memory of a major disaster to get most people to acknowledge that they could be affected by one, so it's an uphill battle. I've seen old adds from Florida in which builders actually touted the hurricane resistance of their product, but apparently, there was much less emphasis on such matters in the 1980s when most of the neighborhoods devestated by Hurrican Andrew were built. Most of the construction was more storm resistant after Andrew, so an event that big can make a difference. But fires happen mostly one at a time, so it's easy for a home buyer to assume that the house they are buying is safer than the one they just saw burning. It might help if firefighters groups teamed up with fireproofing interests (companies making sprinklers, intumescent paint, fire-resistant sheathing, etc.) to come up wiht some standards beyond current local codes, with a certification procedure, and challenge builders to meet them. Not all builders would be interested, but if their customers started noticing, they might make some efforts. It would have to be flexible enough to allow lightweight trusses and joists as long an a compensatory application of fireproofing brought the building back up to the standards met by dimension lumber construction. This would at least give homebuyers a chance to know how little it would cost to build much less vulnerable houses.