In Case of Fire
Reading the Room
I recently found myself discussing architecture with my brother-in-law, a firefighter. To be precise, we talked about the experience of walking into a burning house, and about recent developments in home construction. Ever the optimist, I expected enthusiasm about improvements in building code. Instead, I found ambivalence about advances in construction technology.
Like others at his firehouse, Mike has a keenly felt mistrust for interiors with floors supported on engineered lumber. He has a particular aversion, that is, to houses built in the last several years.
What is there to dislike? Compared to dimensional lumber, engineered joists are lightweight and easy to handle; they promise longer spans, more open plans, brighter spaces; they allow a more open structural system, which makes it easier to route mechanical and electrical systems. They are cheaper. Materially efficient. Less squeaky. They sustain the architectural-industrial complex, not least the glue industry. Their acronyms enrich our vocabulary: LSL, LVL, MSR, OSB, OSL, PKI, PSL, SCL, TJI, TSL, their names stamped onto their surfaces so as to facilitate brand recognition.
But as the UK’s National Fire Chiefs Council puts it, such products are “prone to rapid failure once fire protection is breached.” If, when responding to an alarm, you step onto a floor resting on joists that have been weakened by fire, you are done for. Worse still, such supports are typically hidden behind other materials “and therefore not readily visible for identification.” This makes it hard to read the room.
So instead, before walking into a burning house, firefighters are trained to assess the situation based on the presumed year of construction. In this regard, at least, they have antiquarian tendencies.
Kyle Dugdale is an (English) architect, historian, and critic.