Over the past decade, the term “fire season” has taken on an entirely new meaning in California. To be honest, I’m not even sure that the word “season” still applies – a season implies a cycle, something it seems that we have now transcended. Regrettably, we have entered an era where fires are a constant, bleak, and devastating reality in our daily lives.As grim a reality as fires present, it is our responsibility as a society to embrace their prevalence and do the best we can to prepare for them. Such a response will necessitate modifications to the way we choose to build our homes and places of work for future generations. We as a community must embrace safe, resilient building practices while ensuring that affordability, and equity are top of mind. Fortunately, the timing is right for our most populous city to make significant improvements to their building standards.
The good news is that going forward, we have the opportunity to emphasize durability, sustainability and affordability in future construction. While we can’t control how and when most fires start, we can ensure that our cities and communities are prepared to mitigate the worst of damage from them. We must make sure that we are using the safest, most resilient building materials available for construction, that also have a reduced environmental footprint.The Building a Safer Los Angeles motion, which has been debated and passed by both the Public Safety and Planning and Land Use committees in the city of Los Angeles represents a crucial step to this end. The motion would adopt existing building safety requirements from our Fire District and apply them to growing and densely populated areas, requiring that structures meet increased fire life safety guidelines. Builders can build with fire treated lumber, concrete and steel and can meet the growing need for affordable housing in our city.More good news: Building a Safer Los Angeles couldn’t have arrived with better timing, as the price of lumber – a fire-prone construction material – is rising at a record-setting pace. Currently, the price for softwood lumber is nearly three times what it was only a year ago and is showing no sign of slowing down. As a result, multifamily housing developers’ margins have decreased from 20 percent to 5 percent over the last 12-18 months, and there are concerns that continued inflation could cause economic strife and delayed construction of affordable housing.Previously, the argument to build with combustible vs. non-combustible materials hinged upon comparatively cheap upfront costs. (Though it bears noting that over a building’s lifespan, some materials such as untreated wood, aren’t any cheaper than non-combustible materials—and, when considering insurance, efficiency, maintenance, and upkeep, it’s actually more expensive.) Unfortunately, in this environment, untreated wood is more expensive and less resilient than alternative materials.In order to ensure that safety standards reflect the evolving threats to our city’s structures, we must employ fair and reasonable strategies, rely on solid data from experts, and build affordable housing that is resilient and safe.
Our elected officials must see Building a Safer Los Angeles for what it is: a reasonable, affordable, attainable, economically-sound motion that prioritizes the safety of all Los Angeles residents above all else. This one is a no-brainer and should swiftly pass in City Council for our future protection.Melanie O’Regan is vice president and general manager of Glendora-based CalPortland, which makes cement and other building materials.