Two conflicting phenomena are upon us when it comes to building safety. The first is that the menu of products that are used to build and furnish our houses are increasingly becoming incinerators for deadly blazes. The second is the reaction to this that is requiring sprinklers in every inhabited structure, including single-family homes and apartments. The two, of course, are at odds and result in enormous cost implications and a diversion from the real issue. If we use natural materials that are locally-sourced to build our buildings and furniture, we will not only build in a more cost-effective manner but in a safer one as well.
I met with a town fire marshal this week about work we are doing in his jurisdiction in Connecticut. He requested that all structures be sprinklered stating the clear safety benefits that this brings to an inhabitant. This is made even more pertinent when municipalities are slashing fireman jobs and pay everywhere you look. However, in this marshal's town, the fire department is volunteer so this was not the case. The motivation behind sprinklers was not response time but in reaction to the very materials that experimental, product-driven architecture specifies. As we have strayed from the common-sense materials that made for durable, beautiful buildings that naturally responded to time and place, so have we introduced the adhesives and other engineered products that create massive fire hazards of our buildings. It turns out that natural materials aren't only durable because they are structurally sound and inherently designed to weather and age slowly but also because they self-extinguish in the case of a fire.
Another firefighter I met with in Maryland had a similar point of view. He was in response to a fire at a historic structure with solid wood structural beams in the floor. Upon arriving at the scene he was told that the fire had engulfed the house to the point that it was unsafe to enter. The firefighter looked inside the house and saw a grand piano sitting solidly on the floor. He knew at that point that if the floor was sound enough to hold a piano, it could hold him. He entered the house and did his job.
In the United States we've built more in the last 50 years than in the previous 200. The vast majority of this construction boom has been assembled out of pre-manufactured components held together by unstable synthetics that are not only harmful to breath but, as mentioned, extremely flamable. Our response has not been to return to more practical means of building but to add another layer of enforced cost and regulation to an already burdened construction industry through making every structure sprinklered (Pennsylvania just passed this into law). While sprinklers have been shown to cut dramatically the amount of water that is needed to fight a fire and the amount of CO2 that is loaded into the atmosphere from a blaze, the fire load and frequency would arguably be much less if the fire was not so intense in the first place. Furthermore the type of toxins released into the air would not be the type that accompany synthetic materials but natural ones. Our earth's atmosphere is designed to recover from the latter and has little to do with the former type of pollutants.
It goes without saying, then, that fire safety, just like traffic safety or health care, is not achieved through additional regulation but through increased scrutiny as to the root causes of what we aim to overcome. If we can do that, we will be able to dramatically increase our quality of life while making it more affordable to do so.