Opinion

Stick-built apartments are a rising risk in the Triangle

We all know the old folktale about the three little pigs – two built their houses out of quick and cheap materials like sticks and straaw so that they could spend more time goofing off. The third spent more time building a strong house out of brick and stone. The first two pigs were devoured by a wolf, who easily blew down their houses. But the third pig was safe and sound in a sturdy home. The moral of the story is that investing more time up front to complete a task the right way, without cutting corners, leads to durability and security down the line.

So why are municipal leaders in the Triangle working with developers to cover our cities with dangerous, hastily constructed condos and apartment homes made out of sticks? The News & Observer and Herald-Sun recently reported that yet another mixed-use wood-frame apartment complex is slated to go up next to Durham Central Park soon, but it is past time for leaders to begin limiting the hazardous trend of wood constructed complexes taking over the city.

You’ve undoubtedly seen the buildings – blocky apartment complexes about five stories tall with a fresh coat of colorful modern paint. There’s even a good chance you even live in one, as I do. After all, these housing complexes have gone up faster than weeds in Raleigh, Durham and all points in between. If you are a renter who needs to live close to the city, there are very few options that don’t fit this mold.

Here’s the problem: the projects we see going up around town are all made out of cheap wood – “stick” construction is the industry’s term. This type of structure saves wealthy developers more money but renders buildings extremely vulnerable to fire (particularly during construction). Stick-built apartments in New Jersey (the now-infamous Avalon fires), Boston and West Oakland have gone up in flames within the last few years. Here at home, Raleigh suffered major fires to wood-built housing structures in 2016 and again in 2017. In fact, catastrophic fires in major metro areas are on the rise, according to a report released in May by the insurance rating firm AM Best. Bloomberg reports that, “Of the 13 U.S. blazes that resulted in damages of $20 million or more in 2017, according to the National Fire Protection Association, six were at wood-frame apartment buildings under construction.”

To return to the three little pigs analogy — which buildings will remain strong when the next wolf comes to blow them down? North Carolina is experiencing an historic heat wave on the heels of historically intense storms, flooding and wildfires over the past few years. As climate change intensifies, extreme weather will only get worse. Does anyone believe these cheap wood mid-rises will stand the test of time?

Other communities have pushed back against this trend. Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, two suburbs of Atlanta, enacted bans on wood-frame buildings greater than three stories (the restrictions were later overturned by the Georgia legislature). It’s time for Durham, Raleigh and all of our surrounding towns to do the same. Let’s demand more from developers, rather than giving them carte blanche to cover our streets with cheap buildings that often paradoxically come with unaffordable rent. In the end, doing nothing is an unaffordable risk.

Brian Powell is an attorney living in Durham. He is on the staff of the NC Conservation Network, but this opinion is his own.

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