Innovations in building materials that allow builders to construct homes more quickly and at lower costs may make those homes more likely to burn quickly in the event of a fire.
“We know that the way homes are built today, they tend to burn hotter and faster because they use unprotected lightweight construction,” according to Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy for the National Fire Protection Association. “They have open floor plans. We fill our homes with a lot of synthetic materials. All of those things have combined [so that] if you do have a fire in your home, they burn much quicker.”
That’s not a suggestion that builders are cutting corners in modern homes.
“Lightweight construction is safe,” Carli said, “and it has a lot of benefits to the construction process. It’s less expensive, it’s stronger. The challenge is that it reacts differently in a fire scenario than traditional lumber. It tends to collapse quicker.”
Wooden trusses are among the type of lightweight construction materials that burn quickly, but they’re a cost-effective tool that helps builders complete homes efficiently, according to Jamie Farney, director of building marketing for the Portland Cement Association.
“The combination of a wood truss over a concrete wall system is great, but then there are things you can do to make sure that, that wood truss is better protected,” he said, like enclosing eaves and soffits, and covering roofs with noncombustible materials.
[Related: 3 ways to make home designs more sustainable]
Whether they’re adopting more noncombustible materials in their builds, or installing fire suppression and safety systems on new projects, building resilient homes gives builders a value proposition that focuses on homeowner safety.
Total fire deaths and home fires have been cut in half since 1980, but the death rate—the number of deaths per 1,000 home fires—has remained fairly consistent, according to an October 2019 report by NFPA. In fact, in single-family homes, the fire death rate has actually increased in that time period: up 21% in 2018 over 1980.
“It appears that most of the reduction in fire deaths over the past decades has been due to a reduction in fires rather than the prevention of harm after a fire is reported,” according to the report.