Today’s Useless Fact: Fire Protection Codes
What has not yet been established, but is equally true, is that I am a teensy bit neurotic.
Specifically, I am way too interested in safety features. One of my favorite dorky hobbies is studying various engineering disasters, and reading all about the things that went absurdly wrong. (Yeah, I know. My lack of a social life is a real mystery to me, too. Not sure why talking about roof collapses hasn’t made me a bigger hit at parties.)
But, since this is a blog about construction, and not Sigma Chi Ski Lodge ’06, hopefully my useless knowledge has finally found a better home.
As it turns out, those twenty zillion pages of building codes that serve as the kryptonite to developer profitability are usually the result of hard learned lessons.
Prior to the early 1900’s, we didn’t really worry about fire safety. As long as nothing caught on fire, this was great news. Unfortunately, since we were still using kerosene lanterns, this usually was not great news.
Still, we hadn’t really mastered high rise construction, and most of our buildings were only holding one or two families at a time. Even though there was plenty of property loss, the human toll of all of this was pretty minimal.
However, in the early 1900’s, our cities became cramped, and our buildings began growing bigger and taller. On top of that, thanks to urbanization and the industrial revolution, we began spending more time in crowded buildings–the metal smith who had been working in a space behind his house was now working in a factory with hundreds of other men, and the first grader who had been going to a one-room schoolhouse with eleven other children was now attending school in a three-story building with 470 classmates.
Suddenly, the mislaid match that would have ignited a single family home 30 years earlier now had the potential to kill hundreds.
Between 1900 and 1909, there were no fewer than five U.S. structural fires that each carried 100+ person death tolls. This…obviously wasn’t good. At all.
However, the one silver lining amidst all of the tragedy was that we finally started to pay attention to how design impacts safety. We realized that all rooms need at least two means of egress, and that multi-story buildings need fire escapes. We realized that different materials burn at different rates, and that when you have hundreds of people to evacuate, timing is critical.
Soon, we developed fire alarms, and sprinkler systems, and flame-retardant materials. We learned that exit doors need to open outward, and that revolving doors can clog in a mass exodus. We realized that exits needs to be marked in a way that allows them to be seen through smoke, and that buildings with complicated floor plans need pre-planned escape routes. We began to fortify stairwells, and bring in fire doors that slow the spread of fire throughout a building.
With every tragedy, we learned another lesson, and slowly but surely, those tragedies started to become fewer and further between.
The knowledge we have today came at a high cost, but ultimately, we now live in a far safer world than we did 100 years ago.