As growth in Raleigh booms, buildings rise quickly. Perhaps, too quickly.
The spectacular fire that consumed a 241-unit apartment building under construction near downtown Raleigh last Thursday night has raised questions about the type and quality of building methods and materials being used in new buildings.
The fire that reduced The Metropolitan, an unfinished, five-story building at the corner of West Jones and Harrington Street, was apparently fueled by the extensive use of wood in the upper floors. Wood allows for faster and less expensive construction than using concrete and steel, but it’s vulnerable to fire, especially when the building is unfinished and sprinklers have not yet been installed.
One doesn’t need to be an architect or a construction expert to see that many of Raleigh’s new buildings, especially apartment buildings that have proliferated in recent years, appear lightly constructed and swiftly put together. When completed, they may be wrapped in a handsome and sturdy-looking exterior, but those who’ve watched the process know there’s a lot of wood framing underneath.
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Thanks to fire codes, high-tech smoke detectors and sprinkler systems and the rapid response of fire departments, most multi-story building fires don’t get far. But that record may have lulled regulators into a false sense of safety. Not only are wood-framed buildings more likely to burn, they are also faster to collapse, increasing the risk to residents and firefighters alike.
There’s symbolism in the location of The Metropolitan fire on Jones Street, a few blocks from the where the state legislature meets. The charred remains and the damage to adjoining buildings ought to spur lawmakers to take a hard look at whether the growth in North Carolina’s urban areas is outpacing safety standards and building codes.
While fire safety is the first concern, officials in Raleigh should also worry whether the city’s building boom is creating high-quality structures. As the city grows, it should have the strong bones of lasting, appealing buildings, not cookie-cutter boxes put up at minimal cost that are nondescript when they open and will grow shabby after a few decades.
Thanks to the alertness and expertise of Raleigh firefighters and other first responders, Thursday’s fire was contained and there was no loss of life. But the inferno that lit the night as The Metropolitan burned should prompt demands for better safety and quality in how we build a metropolis here and across North Carolina.