Ashes and Opportunity

Cooks become careless in the kitchen; old electrical wiring arcs; wildfires burn out of control. The result is the same: Home fires that can devastate the lives of the residents. Home fire property damage totaled nearly $6 billion in 2003 not including the Southern California wildfires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

June 30, 2005

Sidebars:
Adding and upgrading after a fire
Staying safe on a fire renovation job

Cooks become careless in the kitchen; old electrical wiring arcs; wildfires burn out of control. The result is the same: Home fires that can devastate the lives of the residents. Home fire property damage totaled nearly $6 billion in 2003 not including the Southern California wildfires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That year saw 388,500 home fires, 3,145 civilian fire deaths and 13,650 civilian fire injuries.

Whether remodeling, adding a room, restoring fire damage or doing repairs and replacements, contractors can help homeowners avoid repeat or potential fire disaster.

With older structures, fire resistance will be improved just by meeting modern new construction codes with fire stop blocking, fire stop insulation and caulking, says Joe Rathsack, sales manager and senior estimator for Carl Krueger Construction in Milwaukee, Wis.

Other innovations can not only increase a home's fire resistance but also improve its performance. Many insurance companies support these innovations. Steel-framed houses with fire-resistant siding, for example, would qualify for a slightly better rate. Many insurers will also give "protective device discounts" for fire alarm and sprinkler systems.

The alarm option and the sprinkler solution

Except where required by local ordinance, automatic fire sprinkler systems are rare in single-family homes. According to the Residential Fire Safety Institute, only 3 to 4 percent of new residential construction has sprinklers, while it is almost unheard of in renovation projects.

"Chances are the building they are working on would not have burned in the first place if it had sprinklers," says Michael Van Pavenage, a project manager for The Reijnen Company in Bainbridge Island, Wash. At the same time, he acknowledges that in his seven years of fire renovation experience, he's never installed a sprinkler system during the restoration process.

"I guess no one figures they are going to have another fire," he says. "I hope they're right."

In new construction, a sprinkler system can cost $1 to $2 per square foot, while a retrofit can range from $2 to more than $10 per square foot, depending on the amount of work required in the wall and ceiling cavities and with the plumbing system. In a fire renovation or gut remodel, the cost should be at the lower end.

Builders and fire safety officials often take opposing positions regarding making residential sprinkler systems mandatory.

"Fire sprinklers are the single most effective means of controlling fire loss in this country," says Michael Donahue, Battalion Chief for the Office of Fire Code Enforcement of Montgomery County, Maryland.

Citing cost impact and housing affordability, NAHB policy opposes making residential sprinklers code for single-family homes and for low-rise multifamily residences. As a cost-effective alternative, NAHB recommends installing hard-wired smoke alarms in both new and existing homes.

When supported by a backup energy source, a direct-wired multipurpose alarm system is a good option, agrees Roy Marshall, director of RFSI (www.firesafehome.org) in Maple Grove, Minn.

"Alarm systems are much more reliable if you have them direct-wired with the battery backup," Marshall says. He stresses, however, that renovation is an opportune time to install a sprinkler system.

Fire-resistant product options

Roofing: If you'll be working on the roof, carefully consider a Class A fire-resistant one. In areas where wildfires are common, this is one of the first steps homeowners should take.

All roofing material is graded depending on how it performs during testing and categorized as Class A, B or C. Class A options, which are the most effective against severe fire exposure, include tile, clay, slate and concrete shingles; metal; fiber-cement; and fiberglass reinforced asphalt. Some materials require an underlayment for a Class A rating.

Many highly fire-resistant roofing materials offer greater durability than standard materials. Clay and concrete tiles, for example, are wind- as well as fire-resistant.

Framing: If you're building an addition or rebuilding from the ground up, consider using nonflammable residential light-gauge steel in combination with steel L-headers. Light-gauge steel framing can be more cost effective than wood framing (see "Whole-House Remodeling with Steel Studs and Joists," June 2004), and is also rot- and termite-resistant. Steel L-headers with single or double steel L-angles simplify the installation of headers and save labor time by reducing the amount of cutting and fastening.

Other good options are insulated concrete forms (ICFs) and thermal mass (T-Mass) walls. ICFs are rigid plastic foam forms that hold concrete in place during curing and remain in place as thermal insulation. T-Mass walls consist of 2 inches of plastic foam extruded polystyrene board insulation sandwiched between 4 inches of concrete on the interior and 2 inches of concrete on the exterior.

Both ICFs and T-Mass walls provide a high-strength, tightly sealed, energy-efficient, well-insulated envelope.

Decking: Given that joists, decking, and railing are usually made of 2-inch-thick wood, wooden decks burn very easily. Fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) decks are fire resistant; an attractive alternative to wood; do not crack, split or warp; and are expected to last the life of the home without routine maintenance. FRP decking is typically sold in a package that includes deck boards, attachment clips, trim and handrail material.

Siding: Although it has the look of wood, noncombustible fiber-cement siding is termite-, moisture- and fungus-resistant. It can also be less expensive than other noncombustible options, such as masonry and stucco.

Windows and Doors: Windows with smaller panes perform better in fire than those with larger panes, and double-pane tempered glass windows are preferred. Install skylights with nonflammable screening shutters. When picking exterior doors, choose solid wood or fiberglass or, even better, metal.

Wiring: Wiring is associated with more than 40,000 home fires and claims over 350 lives a year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Consider using electrical raceways during any rewiring project. Because raceways reduce wall penetrations, they reduce the number of places a fire can breach. They also keep electrical wiring more accessible for inspection and allow easier expansion of wiring systems in the future.

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters: Where connections are loose or wires or cords are damaged, unintentional arcs (electrical discharges) can occur. High temperatures and sparking can cause a fire. Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) respond to early overheating and sparking conditions, which most household fuses and circuit breakers do not. AFCIs can be installed quite easily by an electrician and cost $25 to $50 per breaker.

The Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH, www.pathnet.org ) is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

 

Adding and upgrading after a fire

In 2002, fire ravaged a 99-year-old home on Milwaukee's Lake Drive. With the structure's old-fashioned balloon framing, the fire quickly spread into the floor and wall cavities, devouring the center of the three-story home.

At the owners' request, the 6,000-plus-square-foot Arts and Crafts home remains true to its historical roots and incorporates upgrades that make the home more comfortable, efficient and fire resistant.

"Typically in fire restoration, you replace what you had. It's apples for apples," says Joe Rathsack, sales manager and senior estimator for Carl Krueger Construction, the contractor on the project. "But once in a while, homeowners want to take the opportunity to make improvements."

Improvements included zoned heating and cooling, air conditioning, a communications system, a second-floor laundry and improved lighting. Bathrooms received new exhaust systems and radiant floor heating. Kitchen upgrades included radiant floor heating, custom cabinetry, new countertops and an island.

After a house fire, clients may be numb with grief, bitterness or anger. Yet this may be the best time to approach them about building improvements.

"There's this mindset — and it's been in every owner I've worked with — that 'I just want what I had,'" says Michael Van Pavenage of The Reijnen Company in Bainbridge Island, Wash. "But if I've got the house torn down to the foundation, it is never, ever going to be cheaper to make upgrades."

Homeowners often assume they will have to fight the insurance company just to get their home back and therefore think it's unrealistic to consider upgrades, Van Pavenage says. While it's true that insurance companies will only reimburse the actual losses, once value is established, the reimbursement money can be used any way the homeowners see fit during restoration.

If the remodeler carefully discusses the value of upgrades upfront, homeowners won't be wondering later what more they could have done.

On the Lake Drive job, Rathsack and the homeowners added one very important upgrade: fire safety. Carl Krueger Construction added an electrical fire alarm system with battery backup to the house. Code required the company to rebuild the masonry fireplace fire boxes with new fire brick. Rathsack also added stainless steel and poured concrete chimney liners to the chimney.

Staying safe on a fire renovation job

The ashes may be cold, but is it safe to go in there? As seasoned rehab experts can tell you, things are not always as they seem.

Fire-damaged structures can collapse weeks after the fire has been extinguished, says Roy Marshall, director of the Residential Fire Safety Institute: "Any home that has been damaged by fire has visible damage, but you can also have damage that is not visible, as with structural components."

Query local fire officials carefully about the history of the fire and potential weak spots in the structure.

"The fire department is very good about letting you know what they've had to chop holes in, what they have found that may collapse, and whether there are any other issues," says Michael Van Pavenage of The Reijnen Company in Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Once you know it's safe, you can focus on shoring up the intact structure and beginning the restoration.

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