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Fire-Resistant Building Materials Stir Debate

 A new bill seeks to impose more fire prevention measures on builders, but will it prove overzealous for developers and builders in an industry already fraught with financial and regulatory challenges? Last month, Los Angeles City Council passed a motion that proposes to expand fire life safety building practices in the city. The regulatory changes were inspired by the Da Vinci arson fire in downtown L.A., as well as the Woolsey Fire and the related Camp Fire that burned in Los Angeles and Ventura counties several years ago.L.A. City Council member Monica Rodriguez, who led the Public Safety Committee, introduced the bill with the support of a co-sponsor — Council member Bob Blumenfield. Both Rodriguez and Blumenfield represent districts in the Valley.Blumenfield has a sense of urgency about the issue.“Every day that goes by, we’re adding risk,” Blumenfield told the Business Journal.Blumenfield explained the necessity of this measure, which would expand Fire District 1 — an outline of necessary fire codes for builders in the densest sections of Los Angeles — to encompass San Fernando Valley areas such as Warner Center.“It’s a little stricter,” Blumenfield said of Fire District 1 over the Valley’s current coding. “You have to only use treated wood; you have to build in a smarter way.”The City Building Code Fire District 1 Expansion ordinance would expand Fire District 1 to include high-density, commercial and multi-family designated areas in the city. It would also require a Fire Protection Plan for all new and significantly altered projects more than 150,000 square feet and/or 100,000 square feet if the building is over 30 feet in height. Most significantly, it would ensure the use of non-combustible materials.Wood differentials“We all love timber because when there’s an earthquake, it’s flexible,” said John Parker of Canoga Park construction company Parker Brown, who believes that any moves to impose stricter requirements on builders will depress his industry.

He’s against regulation which he sees as another move in California to “yet again to stall development and construction.” In a recent blog post, Blumenfield emphatically clarified any misconception that his motion would not allow wood to be used in construction throughout the city.“That’s not true,” Blumenfield wrote. “Wood can still be used in all areas, but in Fire District 1, it would need to be treated with fire retardants.” He believes that such treated wood, had it been applied to the Da Vinci building, would have minimized that incident.Parker disagreed.“I’m not sure that fire retardant will stop anything,” Parker said. “I think it will add more costs.”“Oftentimes people don’t understand it, they hear false narratives,” Blumenfield told the Business Journal regarding the notion that it would prove too expensive for developers and contractors. “At the end of the day, the cost differential is negligible. Certainly, when you compare it to the life and safety costs, I don’t think it’s that onerous.”Larry Williams, executive director of Virginia-based Steel Framing Industry Association, a national trade group, agreed with Blumenfield that such legislation is “the most responsible thing that the government can do” because of the growing number of catastrophic fires.”As for money, Williams believes that cries from builders of 30 or 40 percent more in costs added to a building’s construction has been exaggerated.

“Today, non-combustible materials are 7 percent less expensive, plus the savings on insurance prices,” Williams said.Past disastersIn his blog post, Blumenfield retraced the history of how and why he and Rodriguez are pushing for more fire resistance.“The Woodland Hills and Warner Center community will never forget the devastation of the Woolsey Fire, which burned portions of Malibu to the ground,” Blumenfield wrote.

The Woolsey Fire, which ignited in November 2018 and raged for three weeks, burned 96,949 acres across Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The blaze destroyed 1,643 buildings, killed three people and injured five.“Facing the reality of climate change, fires like Woolsey may become the new normal,” Blumenfield wrote. “While we may hope for the best, we need to plan for the worst.”He said that emergency personnel were ready to carry out the order to evacuate Warner Center, but it didn’t happen.In 2018, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl asked Blumenfield to serve on the county’s Woolsey Fire Task Force to produce an after-action report with fire-prevention recommendations.“One of the most consistent things I’ve heard (working with the committee) was we’ve got to get our building codes better and target the combustible materials,” recalled Blumenfield, who stressed how close Woodland Hills’ commercial center came to being decimated during the Woolsey Fire.“A slight shift of wind could’ve burned down Warner Center,” Blumenfield said.

However, Blumenfield said that his interest in this legislation preceded the Woolsey Fire and goes back to a 2014 downtown Los Angeles incident: the Da Vinci arson fire that leveled a three-story apartment building under construction and incurred $70 million in property damage to nearby buildings.  “It opened my eyes in many ways,” Blumenfield said of the Da Vinci incident, which claimed no lives.Parker believes that regardless of building materials, the Da Vinci building fire could not have been avoided because it was an isolated incident ignited by a pyromaniac. Parker said one can’t build legislation around “a one-off event like Da Vinci.”“I believe the industry will come up with the policing of it without needing the city to do so,” Parker said. “I’m a friend of Bob Blumenfield. … He works very hard for this district and after the Woolsey fire, I know he’s going to try to genuinely hold that back from happening again.”Yet the reaction among himself and his industry peers to this regulatory effort, Parker said, has been nearly unanimous: “We just sort sigh and say, ‘Here’s another regulation.’” Code changesWilliams of the Steel Framing Industry Association believes a fire-resistant material requirement is “the most responsible thing that the government can do” because of the growing number of catastrophic fires.The necessity for such a measure, Williams said, goes back to 2006, when rules for combustible materials changed. Until 2006, “you couldn’t build more than three stories with combustible framing materials,” Williams said.

Then a code change allowed for combustible materials; since then, builders can add additional height to their developments, from 65 to 85 feet with the addition of sprinkler systems.

So builders have been putting those 85-foot buildings atop a non-combustible concrete podium, escalating the precariousness of fire risk.“Now you’re up from four or five stories to seven stories in the air,”’ Williams explained.Williams called this “an unsafe situation” as many of these buildings are still using sprinkler systems meant for single-family homes. “You need to have sprinklers with heads that allow for twice the amount of water flow,” Williams said.

According to Blumenfield, the original Fire District 1 regulations were created when the Valley was “orange orchards.”Updating the building code of the Valley’s urban centers to match that of Hollywood, Century City and Crenshaw is necessary, he wrote in his blog. As Blumenfield sees it, Woodland Hills isn’t on the same page “because of no reason than a historical quirk.”The updated regulations would stretch existing Fire District 1 rules to cover only 4 percent more of the entire city.  “The focus of the expansion is on dense areas with a recent history of massive fires,” Blumenfield wrote.

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.
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