After massive fires in Waltham, Mass. and Boston destroyed large residential lightweight wood-frame building complexes this summer, officials from both municipalities are questioning the safety of wood-frame construction for large apartment complexes and urging the state for stricter regulations on the size of such buildings.

The 10-alarm fire that ravaged a five-building apartment complex under construction in Waltham broke out in early morning on July 23. The 264-unit Edison on the Charles complex is owned by developer Lincoln Cooper Street and constructed by Callahan Construction.

Waltham Fire Chief Paul Ciccone says the Edison project was in line with all building codes but “the wood frame construction did not do the firefighters any favors."

Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy says, “I think the wood-frame construction is idiotic, especially when you’re talking about 264 apartments; this project spanned five buildings on Elm St. and it went up in three hours.”

On July 31, the Waltham City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the state for stricter regulations on the size of residential wood-frame buildings. The resolution—introduced by Waltham City Council vice president Robert Logan—addresses what it considers a deficiency in the International Building Code amended in 2009 to allow for wood-frame construction for buildings up to five-stories. The revised code was incorporated into the Massachusetts State Building Code.

The resolution states that similar problems with wood-frame construction for residential apartment building complexes is happening in other parts of the country. In addition to the Waltham apartment buildings, the resolution states “buildings of this type of construction have been involved in major conflagrations in Los Angeles, North Carolina and Dorchester, Mass.” and calls for public hearings and legislation to correct the stated code deficiency.

For example, a five-alarm fire destroyed a seven-story building in Prince George’s County, Md. in May, renewing calls in that state to regulate “light-framed, combustible, podium construction,” known as Type V construction, in low- to midrise buildings. That fire occurred only a month after a hearing on legislation to include new fire-safety features for Type V construction in the state’s building code.

The following month, Boston residents watched in horror as a six-alarm fire destroyed a $45 million, 83-unit condo complex in Dorchester. The June 28 fire was attributed to an exhaust pipe that was improperly installed.

Massachusetts Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey is looking for ways to make wood-frame construction safer, says Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve McDonald. Ostroskey, Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn and Deputy Chief Gerard Fontana, chief of operations for the Boston Fire Department, recently met with representatives of the construction industry to address concerns about the lightweight engineered wood used in the June 28 Dorchester apartment building fire. The commissioner says he expects recommendations could be forthcoming within 30 days.

“Fire in these types of buildings develops very rapidly,” Finn says. “Years ago, builders used substantial-sized lumber that was more fire resistant. Now [light-weight] wood trusses and wood beams don’t have the mass and when they catch fire, there is less mass to absorb the fire so they are inherently less fire resistant and very dangerous for fire fighters.”

Finn went on to say, “I would think the insurance industry would be interested in this issue. In the case of the Dorchester fire, if the sprinkler system—which was fully functional—was on, the damage would have been $45,000 versus $45 million.”

He says sprinkler systems are not a panacea and for every fire because they can fail, causing property loss in construction.

Dozens of similar wood-frame projects are reportedly under construction in the region, including Quincy, south of Boston, where officials are taking proactive measures to monitor wood-frame construction projects to prevent similar disasters. 

The investigation of the Waltham fire is still underway with no information about the cause or any estimate on the extent of damage, says Waltham Fire Department Lt. Scott Perry, who was unable to estimate when the investigation would be completed.