The following article was written by our own, Richard W. Arzberger, AIA, PP.  It was published in the New Jersey Builders Association Spring Newsletter, which you can read in full here.

On January 21, 2015, a maintenance worker doing plumbing work accidentally started a fire which spread out of control, leading to the destruction of a 240 unit apartment complex in Edgewater, New Jersey. There were no injuries or loss of life resulting from this event, however property loss was extensive and a significant number of residents were displaced.

Spurred by the news media, local officials and activists, lawmakers in the New Jersey Legislature subsequently introduced six bills attempting to address concerns raised by the fire. Proposed solutions went so far as to include establishing a moratorium on multi-family construction. None of the bills received a committee hearing.

On February 2, 2017, two years after the Edgewater fire, a 238 unit apartment complex under construction in Maplewood, New Jersey was destroyed by fire. Once again, there werenoinjuriesorlossoflife,however this event intensified the efforts of the legislature. Attention was focused on perceived deficiencies in New Jersey’s Uniform Construction Code and the underlying national model codes upon which it is based. Advocates for code change argued that the goal should go beyond its current focus, life safety, and be extended to include enhanced property protection.

Criticism of the code focused on three primary areas:

  1. Requiring the provision of a more extensive fire sprinkler system. The most commonly used system in multi-family construction, built to the NFPA 13R standard, does not require sprinkler protection in concealed combustible spaces such as attics and within floor assemblies.
  2. Reducing the allowable height and areaofbuildingsofcombustible (wood frame) construction. Included in this would be the elimination of the “Special Provisions” section of the code which permits “Podium Style” buildings.
  3. Increasing prescriptive requirements for various building assemblies. This would include both an increase in minimum required fire resistance ratings as well as prohibit the use of combustible materials (i.e. wood) in the construction of certain building components such as floor assemblies, fire walls and dwelling unit demising walls.

The Prieto Bill

On April 7, 2017, then Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto introduced Assembly Bill A-96. Speaker Prieto described the measure as a “middle- of-the-road approach that increased fire protection” yet “minimized the impact on construction costs.”

The Bill directed the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs to conform code adoptions to the following provisions for multi-family buildings of combustible construction:

1. It required such buildings to be measured in number of stories above the “grade plane”. This eliminated the exception for “Podium- Style” buildings which permitted an extra story if the lowest level was built of three hour fire resistance rated non-combustible construction. This“four over one” prototype has been widely used for mixed use/residential structures and is commonly used in redevelopment areas.

2. It limits use of currently used NFPA 13Rsprinklersystemstobuildings of up to two stories in height and an area of 10,000 square feet per story. For structures exceeding that allowable a r e a , a minimum two-hour masonry or concrete fire wall must be constructed between each 10,000 square foot area.

3. For buildings in excess of two stories or 10,000 square feet in per-story floor area, the equivalent of an NFPA 13 fire sprinkler system must be provided. This would extend coverage to attics and to within concealed combustible spaces such as floor assemblies.

In addition, Prieto offered a concurrent Bill, A97, mandating the use of a “fire watch” for all eventual multi-family use construction regardless of size or type of construction. The “fire watch”, a dedicated individual with expertise in fire safety, would solely monitor the construction site while there is no construction activity taking place. The requirement of a fire watch would begin at commencement of framing and cease at the issuance of a certificate of occupancy.

The NJBA presented testimony on the Bill at an Assembly committee hearing. It was the Association’s position that lawmakers should not write their own code provisions but instead rely on and participate in the model code development process done on a national level through the International Code Council. Industry experts and code enforcement officials from across the country participate by offering new code provisions, collecting data, analyzing, then voting on adoption.

This process engages those most knowledgeable on the issues and does so in a way which ensures thorough consideration of relevant aspects.

Although the Bill was voted out of committee in December of 2017, it eventually stalled and was not taken up for a vote by the legislature prior to the end of the legislative session. It is considered effectively dead. It’s sponsor, Assembly Speaker Prieto, is no longer a member of the State Assembly.

The DeAngelo Bill

Despite the demise of the Prieto Bill, advocates for legislative action nevertheless continued in their efforts. In addition to a group of citizen activists, fire safety associations and local officials, an additional interested party renewed a more aggressive effort to influence fire safety requirements. The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association made no secret of their intention to expand their market share in multi-family construction by influencing legislation aimed at eliminating wood frame construction as a viable construction alternative. They commenced a massive, well funded nationwide campaign to influence lawmakers, with their first target being New Jersey.

With the departure of Assembly Speaker Prieto, Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo picked up the cause, introducing Assembly Bill A 5196 in the current legislative session. The Bill represents the latest direction on the part of lawmakers with respect to fire safety. Its provisions include the following:

  1. The Bill addresses all residential structures utilizing wood construction containing more than t w o dwelling units. Unlike the Prieto Bill, townhouses are also included.
  2. All covered residential structures are required to provide an NFPA 13 standard sprinkler system. The NFPA 13R sprinkler system will no longer be permitted. Sprinkler protection will be required to be extended to all concealed combustible spaces, including attics.
  3. The “Special Provisions” section of the code, which allows “Podium” prototypes is eliminated and the number of stories shall be measured from grade plane.
  4. Walls separating dwelling units as well as corridor walls must be constructed of non- combustible materials (i.e. steel, concrete or masonry), have a minimum two hour fire resistance rating, and be continuous from foundation to the roof.
  5. Floor assemblies which separate dwelling units shall be constructed of non-combustible materials (i.e. steel or concrete) and have a fire resistance rating of two hours. All supporting structural elements, including both interior and exterior bearing walls shall also have a two hour fire resistance rating.
  6. Fire walls shall only be constructed of noncombustible materials and not “adversely affected by moisture.”
  7. If any framing is unprotected (does not have a minimum fire resistance rating of 1 hour) the
    structure may not exceed three stories or 60 feet in height. If the framing is protected, the maximum height is four stories and 70 feet.
  8. Any residential structure of wood frame construction exceeding two dwelling units shall require a “Fire Watch Warden” present 24 hours a day to monitor construction from commencement of foundation construction until a certificate of occupancy is issued. Only active or retired firefighters or fire inspectors are eligible to serve as “fire watch wardens” and may not be assigned any other responsibilities. It is doubtful whether the pool of eligible individuals who are available and willing to serve as “fire watch wardens” will be sufficient to satisfy industry demand.
  9. Most wood framed residential structures, including single family homes, shall be required to p o s t prescribed signage at their exterior entrance, “communicating the structure is combustible a n d known to the State to pose a fire hazard.”

This Bill, should it be enacted, will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on residential construction in the state by significantly increasing construction costs. In addition, certain building types, such as podium buildings, will be prohibited or in the case of wood framed mixed use residential buildings, no longer feasible to construct.

Considering the impact such legislation would have on the home building industry and the State economy, the NJBA and its Fire Safety Task Force will continue its efforts to oppose this legislation in its current form.