Final Project – Building Construction and Fire

Adam E.

Final Project

English 1101 – Prof. Gold

12/17/11

This English class is the first course I have taken where English, reading and research have actually had a practical use for me. Before this course, I always saw English as an abstract subject that may or may not have real life applications. However, after the research at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I can finally see that English can be very important in our lives. On top of that, I have learned the value of archives; they are an ever-growing collection of facts from the past that can aid us in future decisions.

The consideration of fire is one of the most important aspects in planning for how we build structures and how we plan urban space. Very careful consideration has to be taken to ensure the survival and safety of those who happen to be caught near the fire.  Upon one visit to the Brooklyn Historical Society we were examining maps of before and after the Brooklyn Theatre fire and one thing I immediately noticed is that a lot of the maps before the fire, public space was very cramped; streets were thin, many, many buildings were all clumped into one small area. That creates a very large fire hazard, considering the majority of the buildings from that time were small, wood-frame houses.

Fire not only affects the spacing of houses but also the materials they are built from. Over time, materials and methods have developed to give occupants greater time to safely evacuate the building. One of the newer techniques that wasn’t really present in older buildings are fire rated assemblies. These are a certain method or technique to construct that aid in fire resistance. For example, if you build multiple layers of sheetrock around a structural component, (W Flange beam perhaps) about 45 minutes of strength are added to the beam for each layer of sheetrock. This is one thing that definitely wasn’t present in structures that were constructed around the time of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire. If you are able to successfully isolate structural components with these assemblies, your structure stands a greater chance of resisting fire for longer before it becomes unstable.

Assemblies aren’t the only way that you can fireproof a structure. Since the Brooklyn Theatre fire, construction materials have evolved tremendously. What started as small, wood-frame structures have grown into enormous conglomerates of fire-rated steel, glass and concrete. Fire alone didn’t shape that though, other factors, namely height contributed to the progression in materials. Steel for example is a much stronger (albeit expensive) material.  On top of that, steel can be made even more fire resist with a new type of fireproofing. A very common yet unnoticed way to fireproof is cementitious foam. This is a very soft (when wet), cotton-candy like spray that you apply directly to the component you want to fire proof. This being a new technology evolved from the needs of people who weren’t satisfied with how their structures were standing up to fire. Everyone has seen this fireproofing at one point or another; common places to see it are ceilings in parking garages, where the aesthetics take less priority than the function.

Fire hasn’t only shaped the way structures are built but on top of that, their ingress and egress patterns. Ingress and egress are the “fancy” terms for saying enter and exit; basically the traffic flow of a building. In a fire, every exit becomes a crucial point for those evacuating the building and too few exits or too many exits spaced too close can create potential danger for those trying to evacuate a structure during a fire. While my group was researching the Brooklyn Theatre fire we noticed that there were not many exits in the theatre. Contrary to today’s standards, these exit routes were constructed the same way as the rest of the structure: wood frame. Today, main exit routes are constructed to be held to higher fire resistance than other parts of the structure. While this may seem like common sense in today’s world, it was not present in the Brooklyn Theatre and due to that the fire either directly blocked the exits or caused burning wood to crumble in front of the exits, leaving most of the occupants trapped inside the theatre.

Along with ingress and egress patterns, fire has provoked change in other ways. In any large building, you will find clear, lit up signs pointing to the exit. In the event of a fire, these signs will light up. On top of that, should the power go out, each unit has its own isolated power source to ensure that the signs stay lit during a potential emergency. Along with clear exit signs are fire route maps. These maps are usually nailed or screwed into the wall and show where you currently are and a map to the nearest exit. In the event of a fire, non-elevator routes are shown to help you evacuate the building. None of these provisions were found within the Brooklyn Theatre. At the Brooklyn Historical Society, we examined pictures of the building after the fire and clearly these provisions did not exist based off how the ruins of the theatre looked.

Finally, parti-walls are a product of building technology being changed to help prevent fire. Basically, a parti-wall is not your typical wall. It’s entirely solid and for the most part, more fireproof than other walls. Its purpose is that in the event of a fire, the wall will be able to successfully contain the fire (because it runs fully through the cross section of a building) and keep it from spreading to other parts of the structure or even stop the spread to an entirely different structure.

Fire without a doubt has changed the way people think when it comes to how structures are built. There’s so many more options that exist today than in previous years. With all these options buildings have a higher chance of being stable for longer before collapsing. In a fire, every second that the building holds up is another second that can be used in safely evacuate the location. Fireproofing saves peoples lives, if our fireproofing techniques had not improved, we would have seen many repetitions of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire. Luckily, knowledge has grown tremendously since that time and it will only continue to get better.

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Works Cited:

Vaidya, Sanjive. “Vaidya’s 1100/40 Lectures.” Construction Materials Lecture. New York City College Of Technology, Brooklyn. 2011. Lecture.

Allen, Edward, and Joseph Iano. Fundamentals of Building Construction: Materials and Methods. Hoboken: J. Wiley & Sons, 2004. Print.

“Party Wall.” Wikipedia. Web. 19 Dec. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Party_wall>.

 

 

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