In April, fire broke out in a new subdivision under construction in the GTA, reducing 20 new homes to ash and damaging a number of additional homes.
A neighbourhood in Vancouver with multiple high-rises under construction saw thick smoke warning of fire in June. After nine fire trucks arrived on scene, the fire was put out quickly, before more extensive damage could be done.
Then, in August, a suspicious fire in Montreal damaged a transit station under construction.
Construction sites are hit by fire in unexpected ways, whether due to improperly stored construction materials that catch fire or a vandal intentionally setting a blaze. But for builders and building owners, there’s a wide gap between a total loss and a damaged structure. Those who adopt new materials and technologies, and also take steps to mitigate the risks, can lessen the threat of fire and prevent their projects from going up in flames.
Fire Prevention Technology
Buildings are most vulnerable to fire when they are under construction. Whether the structure is made of concrete, steel or wood, buildings in the process of being constructed lack the technology to slow the spread of fire, whether it’s active fire detection systems or passive systems such as walls and doors.
In addition, hot work such as welding, soldering and grinding are standard construction activities, but can be risky ones. Hours after these activities are performed, flames can still spark and smolder, leaving the building at risk of damage or total destruction.
Wood-framed structures are particularly vulnerable to fire risk. An exposed wooden skeleton can go up in flames in a matter of minutes, leaving the builder with a catastrophic loss.
Therefore, contractors who build wood-framed structures must be mindful of the risks and take steps beyond traditional fire mitigation strategies to protect their projects.
Best Practices For Risk Mitigation
Modern homes are equipped with smart technology that alerts residents when a stove has been left on or if smoke is detected in the room. Buildings that are under construction don’t have that technology in place, but builders can still work to reduce risk.
Consider these five strategies to reduce fire risk on a job site:
1. Start with the code. Whether your building is made of concrete, steel or wood, it’s always best to meet – or exceed – standard building guidelines. Although most builders know to consult the code for final specifications, few consider it for interim guidance. Yet the provincial and federal code is a great place to start when it comes to fire protection and mitigation strategies, since that is a major risk during construction. If you’re constructing a tall wooden structure, the National Building Code of Canada 2020 includes specific technical requirements for natural and engineered wood.
2. Consider alternative materials. In the last decade, Canada has seen the construction of nearly 500 mass timber structures – and more are going up every year. Mass timber is an engineered wood product made of multiple layers of wood that are glued or nailed together. Not only is mass timber strong enough to create structural load-bearing components such as columns and beams, but it also burns in a highly predictable way, charring the outside of the wood while protecting the inside. This is an attractive option for builders since these buildings are less likely to burn completely in the event of a fire on site.
3. Introduce specialty products. Wood is vulnerable to fire in any form, especially stick frame construction or unprotected engineered lumber. Yet introducing a fire-resistive coating to the wood used to construct a building’s frame can significantly lessen the risk of a catastrophic fire event during the most critical period: when the building is framed but before other fire protection systems have been set up. In addition, these products continue to provide fire-retardant capabilities even after the building has been completed – an attractive benefit for the building’s owner. Adding the coating is a simple process that happens to the wood before construction begins but doesn’t change the method of construction.
4. Augment site security. The risk of fire can come from many places, whether through vandals and other bad actors or even a simple accident. Protect against these risks with a fully secured job site, including proper fencing, signage, lighting and security cameras. High-tech options, such as alarms, ignition cut-off switches and GPS tracking devices, support the basics by alerting decision-makers when there is trouble on site. In addition, don’t underestimate the value of a security guard when it comes to deterrence of vandals. A lit, well-monitored job site is a much less attractive target than a dark, abandoned one.
5. Build a culture of safety. Everyone can do their part to lessen the risk of fire on site. Empower workers through formalized, clear processes and procedures. Start with the basics: introduce an approved hot works permit system and be sure all workers know where to report smoke or flames. Be sure any extra building materials, especially combustibles and flammables, are stored in pre-approved locations. In addition, maintain a strict no smoking policy outside of designated areas.
All it takes is one spark for an entire site to go up in flames – no matter how close the structure is to completion. An effective fire prevention strategy begins with safety policies and security features, but it’s greatly enhanced by the adoption of fire-retardant materials and other safety products.
Insurers, for their part, may offer more competitive insurance premiums and better conditions to builders who utilize these materials, a boost that benefits not only the builders but also the eventual building owners. Consult your broker or advisor about the best way to protect your building from the risk of fire both during construction and after completion.
Simon J. Fenn, CIP, is senior vice president at global insurance brokerage Hub International.