A few months ago, some friends of mine lost their house to a fire. Everyone was out of the house when a malfunction with their furnace ignited the house and within minutes the house burned to the ground. I drove by it afterward, and only a single wall stood, blackened, crumbling, and ghostly. And how long did it take?
The house was only seven years old.
And in just minutes all of those memories went up in flames.
The scary truth is that your average home has only minutes before the entire structure is reduced to ash.
Now, this article is not going to focus entirely on the scary truth of building with wood. Rather, what this article is going to focus on, is looking at how homes are typically built, and why current construction methods are actually encouraging fires.
The plan here is to have several articles talking about why the building industry needs to change, each focusing on a different aspect. So check back often.
It should be noted, that we’re not bashing the construction industry or specific companies. We’ve worked with dozens and dozens of construction companies over the years, and have interacted with hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals who provide construction expertise and labor to the masses. And to all of you, we appreciate you.
But what we are advocating is an update in the way things are done so that we don’t have so much wasted money in damages, wasted time from a ruined home, and most importantly, so that we don’t have so many lost lives.
Each year in the US alone, there are an estimated 2,560 needless deaths because of a house fire.
That’s an average of 7 deaths a day.
What do we say? Too many.
We were some of the lucky ones who had a house fire, but who didn’t lose anyone. But it can happen so easily to anyone–and a big part of that is simply how a home is built.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Basic Construction Process
So first we start off with concrete footings and then a concrete foundation. From there, the exterior walls and the floor joists are set. Typically, studs and joists are spaced 16 inches apart. For exterior walls, it’s typical to use 2x8s, and for floor joists, it’s typical to use 2×10–2x12s. There are different sizes, however, these are typical. For interior walls, studs are typically 2x4s.
The most common way of doing things now is to build in levels. So the first floor/story is framed in, then, if there are additional levels or stories, they’re built on top of the first, with the roof being last.
After the home is framed, next comes the sheathing. This is typically made of 3/4” OSB board (basically glued wood wafers). After the sheathing comes the rest of the roofing and the house wrap, and then comes the siding or stucco or brick what have you.
Now, we’re not trying to instruct anyone on how to build a house. That’s not the point or the purpose here. The point is to just give a very general overview.
Why fires love wood frame construction
There’s going to be some argument on what comes first here, so we’re not going to say that x is the number one reason why fires can dominate a wood built home in minutes. Rather, what we’re going to give are reasons why fires thrive in wood built homes—aside from the obvious—the home is made from wood.
It’s nearly impossible to make a wood house airtight. And what does a fire need in order to survive? Cold air intake (cold here is a relative term!). In fact, it’s estimated that air in your wood-framed house recirculates every twenty minutes. That’s pretty substantial (we’re not even talking about the heating or cooling bill, but suddenly it probably makes sense why these can be so high!). What that means is that your fire can breathe really well. And what happens when there’s a draft and an open flame near it? The fire actually sucks the air from that draft faster than what it normally is. And because it’s sucking, and the air is so much cooler than the fire, it makes a flame that moves fast. Well, that’s not what we want to see when it comes to our homes. We want to be safe.
The next point is the walls themselves. Just about every interior wall these days is sheathed with drywall. If you’re not familiar with what it’s made of, drywall comes from compressed gypsum powder, covered in thick paper. It’s fast to put up (well, if you’re good!), and if you’ve got a good drywall guy, the walls are nice and smooth. If you want fire-rated drywall, it’s typically 5/8” thick and has glass fibers added to the gypsum. But it’s a relative thing. Problem is, the paint and paper on the outside of the drywall—once that catches fire, it spreads fast. The gypsum crumbles, and then typically there’s batt insulation (if it’s an exterior wall) that has more super flammable paper. Also, there’s your carpet, floor, furniture, electrical wires, drapes, trim—all sorts of flammable things, that once caught of fire, can be enough to keep a fire going long enough to open up a wall.
Once that wall is opened up—it’s a straight air shaft for a fire.
Like the sucking from the drafts, once the fire gets into the walls, the air suction alone forces the fire up, and into the roof.
If the wall were a solid core (like one solid piece of wood for example or a slab of concrete), it obviously wouldn’t have a giant vent shaft—but with how our homes are built today, once that fire gets into the open shaft, it’s open season on your home.
Next, we’ve got the engineered wood. Fire loves wood anyway. Fire loves particle board and OSB even more. With both OSB and particle board (basically, sawdust glued together that’s found in subfloor as well as your cabinets) we have small to tiny bits of wood glued together with flammable glue. OSB is ridiculously strong—but once a fire gets into it, the glue melts, ignites, and each of those little wafers fan out creating little air pockets, and superfine kindling for the fire. The entire house is sheathed in OSB. Just try a little experiment and watch what happens when you burn OSB (or you can watch this video or do both).
Now, granted there are products that can stop the sheathing from burning. But notice the price. The price as of writing this article is 3x more expensive than regular OSB. What’s that going to mean? It’s going to mean that most people won’t use it even though it works great because it’s too expensive.
We could go on and on, but what we’ve noticed is that instead of trying to just patch an old problem, like fireproofing OSB, we need to start asking some hard questions such as, is the way we’ve been building worth the thousands of lives every single year? It’s clearly not. So the challenge then is coming up with alternatives that not only are safer—but, that are actually realistic in terms of price so that people will use them.
But until word gets spread, and people start asking the right questions, and looking into new options—what’s going to happen—what is happening?
Here’s what’s happening. My friends’ home that burned to the ground within minutes is now being rebuilt. The fire started because of a furnace issue down in their basement. Guess what their new home is being built with? The same exact materials that were used that enabled their home to burn down.
In the automobile industry, we’ve seen significant changes such as the introduction of the seatbelt and airbags.
In the rehabilitation fields, we’ve seen significant improvements with detoxifying addicts.
In the medical field, we’ve seen significant improvements in our medicine and procedures.
Notice that these all affect the way that we live.
Our homes also affect the way we live, and now it’s time to start improving the way we build.