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Re: GSBN: re Ecohouse / Fire issues
Sorry to have been absent from the discussion of this hot topic. Just too many things to manage these days. Anyway, there are a few things that I wanted to contribute to this discussion.
First, I have always recommended that no bare straw be left exposed to air spaces in any assembly that has the potential for fire. This covers any straw that is not plastered. It is both a fire hazard and creates a reduction in the insulating value of the straw if there is space for air movement between the finish and the straw.
Second, I want to make sure we're clear about the difference between what happens when you burn an unconstrained bale whether flat or on-edge when the strings are cut or burned through and what happens to bales that are installed in a wall and constrained by other bales and structural elements. I'm not a big proponent of bales on-edge, mostly because of the various limitations that orientation imposes on the modification of bales, but the fire test we did this summer in Texas on the wall with poly-tied bales on edge is about as good a demonstration of what actually happens in a wall as we're likely to get. The strings burned away, the stucco fell off the heated side of the wall and the wall still withstood two-and-a-half minutes of the fire hose blasting away at the wall. I recognize that different countries have different fire testing standards, but the ASTM E-119 Full Scale Fire Test is, as I understand it, the most rigorous and demanding fire test anywhere, both in temperature and in the hose stream test requirement.
Over the years I wrote several articles about straw bale fires for The Last Straw, interviewing lots of people regarding the circumstances leading up to and the details of the actual events. I have also played around a few times with trying to burn bales and been involved with some of the fire tests. I think people have pretty well expressed the issues related preventing and minimizing the damage of fire and concur that the most vulnerable time is during construction and key contributing factors are typically loose and shaggy bales, loose straw on the ground, unstuffed holes in the walls, lack of fire suppression (hoses, fire extinguishers, etc.), combined with various acts of incendiary stupidity. You know what they say about why it's so hard to make things foolproof... because fools are so damned clever!...
Regarding codes and fire safety requirements during construction, here are some relevant excerpts from the 2003 International Fire Code (IFC). They may be of some general interest or use at least in thinking about this whole issue. Also, it should be explained that the International Code Council and the family of "International" codes they produce, including the International Building Code (IBC), the International Residential Code (IRC), the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), plumbing and mechanical codes, etc. and the IFC, are actually U.S. codes and not international codes the way we are an international group...
FIRE SAFETY DURING CONSTRUCTION AND DEMOLITION
1401.1 Scope. This chapter shall apply to structures in the
course of construction, alteration, or demolition, including
those in underground locations. Compliance with NFPA 241 is
required for items not specifically addressed herein.
1401.2 Purpose. This chapter prescribes minimum safeguards
for construction, alteration, and demolition operations to provide
reasonable safety to life and property from fire during such
PRECAUTIONS AGAINST FIRE
1404.1 Smoking. Smoking shall be prohibited except in approved
areas. Signs shall be posted in accordance with Section 310. In
approved areas where smoking is permitted, approved
ashtrays shall be provided in accordance with Section 310.
1404.2 Waste disposal. Combustible debris shall not be accumulated
within buildings. Combustible debris, rubbish and
waste material shall be removed from buildings at the end of
each shift of work. Combustible debris, rubbish and waste material
shall not be disposed of by burning on the site unless approved.
1404.3 Open burning. Open burning shall comply with Section
1404.4 Spontaneous ignition. Materials susceptible to spontaneous
ignition, such as oily rags, shall be stored in a listed disposal
1404.6 Cutting and welding. Operations involving the use of
cutting and welding shall be done in accordance with Chapter
1404.7 Electrical. Temporary wiring for electrical power and
lighting installations used in connection with the construction,
alteration or demolition of buildings, structures, equipment or
similar activities shall comply with the ICC Electrical Code.
OWNERâ??S RESPONSIBILITY FOR FIRE
1408.1 Program superintendent. The owner shall designate a
person to be the Fire Prevention Program Superintendent who
shall be responsible for the fire prevention program and ensure
that it is carried out through completion of the project. The fire
prevention program superintendent shall have the authority to
enforce the provisions of this chapter and other provisions as
necessary to secure the intent of this chapter. Where guard service
is provided, the superintendent shall be responsible for the
1408.2 Prefire plans. The fire prevention program superintendent
shall develop and maintain an approved prefire plan in cooperation
with the fire chief. The fire chief and the fire code
official shall be notified of changes affecting the utilization of
information contained in such prefire plans.
1408.3 Training. Training of responsible personnel in the use
of fire protection equipment shall be the responsibility of the
fire prevention program superintendent.
1408.4 Fire protection devices. The fire prevention program
superintendent shall determine that all fire protection equipment
is maintained and serviced in accordance with this code.
The quantity and type of fire protection equipment shall be approved.
1408.5 Hot work operations. The superintendent shall be responsible
for supervising the permit system for hotwork operations
in accordance with Chapter 26.
WATER SUPPLY FOR FIRE PROTECTION
1412.1 When required. An approved water supply for fire protection,
either temporary or permanent, shall be made available
as soon as combustible material arrives on the site.
period to ascertain that protection is in service.
PORTABLE FIRE EXTINGUISHERS
1415.1 Where required. Structures under construction, alteration
or demolition shall be provided with not less than one approved
portable fire extinguisher in accordance with Section
906 and sized for not less than ordinary hazard as follows:
1. At each stairway on all floor levels where combustible
materials have accumulated.
2. In every storage and construction shed.
3. Additional portable fire extinguishers shall be provided
where special hazards exist including, but not limited to,
the storage and use of flammable and combustible liquids.
Sent: Sat, 20 Jan 2007 4:54 AM
Subject: Re: GSBN: re Ecohouse / Fire issues
Hello Bill C.,
Generally I agree, as Nehemiah said, the building codes in California do not
address fire or safety during the construction process. The only places I
can find where the Uniform Building Code (which has been the basis for most
building codes in the western US states for decades) ventures into the realm
of safety are:
a) Section 904.6 Fire Extinguishing Systems - Buildings Under Construction,
there are requirements for providing a standpipe for buildings greater than
b) Section 3303 - Protection of Pedestrians During Construction or
However, almost all of the US (and California beginning 2008) now uses the
relatively new International Building Code (IBC) as the basis for State and
local building codes. AND, there is a chapter in the IBC entitled "Chapter
33 - Safeguards During Construction". It deals with protection of
pedestrians and adjacent property as the UBC did, but it goes at least two
places the UBC didn't as follows:
A) Section 3309 - Fire Extinguishers, which requires temporary fire
extinguishers during demolition or construction in locations/situations it
B) 3309.2 - Fire Hazards, which stipulates that the International Fire Code
be followed "to safeguard against all fire hazards attendant upon
I haven't seen the IFC, so I don't know what it contains. But there may be
something there that is useful and enforceable relative to straw bale
(Note: Although the above is in the model IBC, some jurisdictions might
exclude that section (or any other section) from their Code)
Until last Spring I DID have a section of the proposed California SB Code
that addressed the issue of fire safety during construction. It identified
all of the points that you made and more. At the CASBA 2006 Spring
conference I asked for comments about that section from the attending CASBA
members. They jumped all over it (like they were trying to extinguish a
fire on a straw bale) and more or less insisted I not include such language
in the SB code because:
1. It is not the place of the building code to regulate process.
2. It calls too much attention to SB as a fire hazard, especially relative
to building officials who approve permits, insurance companies, and lenders.
3. There are no such requirements for the commonly used and quite flammable
method of wood frame construction.
So, even though on the surface it seems like a very good and sensible idea,
and although it might even save a few buildings (and lives?) I removed it
from the proposed SB code I submitted.
I'm not entirely convinced that it shouldn't be in a straw bale code, but I
know it is much easier to add it than subtract it, and decided that even in
the approval process of the proposed code in California, proposing such
language might unnecessarily scare people who are the gatekeepers of
approval. All that said however, maybe there should at least be a code
requirement that a sign (with specific language re: fire safety during
construction) be posted on each straw bale construction site.
PS - One other minor note. I have been told that somewhere in the Plumbing
Code there is mention of shielding flammable construction from an open
torch, but have never actually seen such language, and I found none just now
with a quick search in an out dated edition of the Uniform Plumbing Code.
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