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Monday, May 29, 2023

Updating L.A.’s Building Standards

The city of Los Angeles, including the Valley area communities, is growing at an alarming rate. With more than 16,000 new units of housing last year, Los Angeles led the Golden State in new residential construction. As more and more buildings go up and as our city continues to grow at a record pace, safety must remain at the forefront. Why? Just look at the recent Woolsey fire, which destroyed sections of the Valley area, and the continuous toll of the overall wildfire problem across the region. A major earthquake is a question of when, not if, as was seen in the recent Ridgecrest earthquakes. Preventive measures in construction and stricter building codes are a long-term investment in the city and more important, the safety and well-being of its residents. A recent measure introduced by San Fernando Valley Councilmembers Bob Blumenfield and Monica Rodriguez, titled “Building a Safer Los Angeles,” is a critical first step in the right direction to protecting the homes of residents across the Valley area. “Building a Safer Los Angeles” directly addresses a major construction flaw that exacerbates the growing fire problem in the county: combustible materials. This measure is relevant to communities across Los Angeles and is particularly important in the respective districts of the sponsoring councilmembers, including Pacoima, Sylmar, Tuna Canyon, Woodland Hills, Tarzana and Canoga Park, among other neighborhoods, where temperatures soar and the Santa Ana winds blow strong.  It was only last November that the Woolsey fires engulfed over 70,000 acres and destroyed at least 400 homes, many across Valley-area districts, and into Malibu and areas such as Thousand Oaks, West Hills, Bell Canyon and Oak Park. But California’s growing wildfire problem isn’t the only safety consideration. When buildings, particularly the low-rise residential complexes that are so common in Los Angeles, rely on combustible materials, residents are put directly in harm’s way. Just a few years ago, arson at the DaVinci apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles set the building ablaze and caused more than $3 million in property damage. And after a major earthquake, it’s fire that can cause most of the damage.  Alternatives to combustible materials bolster the safety and longevity of their structures. Concrete and steel structures, for example, are a safer, stronger, affordable and more environmentally friendly approach, and the buildings are designed to last for centuries. Outdated and unsafe combustible structures are no match to the durability and resistance to the elements that concrete brings. Additionally, the economic benefits of using non-combustible material are underscored by a Dodge Data & Analytics study. This leading company tracks over half a million projects annually and provides extensive economic insight and accurate foresight on models. Tracking more than 600 projects in Los Angeles from 2013-16, the data proved non-combustible buildings have cost 9.2 percent less to build than combustible buildings. The popular belief is that wood construction is significantly cheaper. But this study shows the contrary and in fact, further demonstrates the positive impact that using non-combustible construction will have across the Valley. “Building a Safer Los Angeles” also seeks to expand Fire District 1, which sets higher fire-prevention and fire-fighting standards for areas such as Valley neighborhoods that are at high risk for fire and wind, as well as pockets of the city that exceed 5,000 people per square mile. Los Angeles is seeing an ongoing influx of new residents, and buildings made with combustible materials are particularly dangerous in areas with such a great population density. As we build more housing, we run into the frequent objection from current residents in risky areas that their escape routes will be blocked or compromised by more homes. Preventing those homes from being fire risks in the first place will help keep neighborhoods safe. The measure prioritizes safety for L.A. residents, and that’s also a good thing for skilled construction workers. Our ongoing struggle in the building trades is against the “underground economy” of off-the-books construction where workers are exploited, with low wages paid in cash, no benefits or workers’ compensation and lax safety protections on the job. More workers are injured on these jobs and yet they’re the least likely to have insurance. Projects that utilize noncombustible construction will have to up the skill level, pay and benefits of their workforce. And that is a win not only for our community, but for all construction workers, residents and homeowners alike. Future natural disasters will ultimately bring a high cost. The best action in this scenario is to make sure that our buildings do not fall prey to these inevitable catastrophes, and that we build with the smartest possible methods. I applaud and support “Building a Safer Los Angeles” and join councilmembers Blumenfield and Rodriguez, along with many others who want to make our city safer. Ron Miller is executive secretary for the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.

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