Wood-frame apartments are cheaper to build, but fire risks increase

DENVER – There are more than a hundred apartment complexes under construction or recently completed in Denver built with wood frames, like Emerson Place, which burned to the ground in Uptown Wednesday.

"Cities just as busy as we are in Denver, building just as fast, unfortunately, this is a tragedy that I don't know if it was preventable," explained Denver's building official, Scott Prisco.

The five-story apartment complex under construction at 18th Ave. and Emerson St. was all wood-frame when it went up in flames. The most vulnerable state of construction for these types of builds because none of the fire protection is installed yet.

Similar scenarios have played out at apartment construction sites in Raleigh, North Carolina and Kansas City, Kansas and they were all built with wood framing.

Denver developer David Berton said the reason builders use wood is because it's cheaper than concrete and steel, in some cases by 30 to 40 percent.

"It is really a price point issue," said Berton. "The construction costs and the home values will be much more expensive if we have to use concrete and steel instead of wood."

"There's certain precautions that need to take place because it is volatile material during construction," said Prisco. "When buildings are constructed out of wood and all of the safety measures are put in place, they are safe structures."

Colorado's building codes are governed by international standards, mandating that all wood-framed apartment complexes have tested and approved sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers at specified locations, access to exits, and repellent doors that resists flames for at least two hours.

The sprinklers, however, cannot be installed until there is heat in the building -- which is why Emerson Place did not have those protections in place.

Building code also mandates that wood framing can be used for multi-family dwellings with five stories or less. Anything higher requires steel or concrete framing.

"This is a tragic event, I don't foresee making any changes in our building regulations or our code to change anything that's being done. This is normal construction that happens across the United States," said Prisco.

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