Repeat after me: Sustainable design and construction is no guarantee for quality

I am an outsider. Among construction defect and quality management professionals, my involvement with green building makes me stick out like a sore thumb. Among green building professionals, advocates and activists, my responses to claims that green buildings are better quality leads to some very awkward moments. Without adopting more sustainable practices, existing design and construction professionals will face irrelevance. Without addressing the increased risk inherent in high performance buildings, true sustainability will be unachievable.

Yesterday I was sitting at the park, flipping through the latest news stories on my iPad, while my daughters were playing. One article in particular caught my attention—in much the same way that a lightning bolt striking my head would have caught my attention—and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Architect and writer Lloyd Alter, is a powerful ally in educating and informing people of both the importance and the beauty, that sustainable design and construction bring to the evolution of the built environment. He is an outspoken proponent of green practices in general, and LEED in particular. Any time that the “plastic people” (as Alter refers to lobbyists and others representing the interests of big chemical companies) try to smear LEED or green building for their own benefit, his column at TreeHugger is the place to typically find the most well-formed rebuttals.

In fact, Alter was clearly prepared for a fight in response to a piece I wrote analyzing the failure of the first LEED Platinum project. (He acquiesced after I replied to his comment, but boy was I worried about getting tarred and feathered at TreeHugger…)

Which is why when I read the following opening sentence from Alter, I knew something was up:

I am nervous about writing this post; no doubt the lobby groups that promote plastics and fossil fuel use and hate green building will jump on it.

Indeed, the story that Alter shared is astounding. Here is an excerpt from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regarding their findings associated with a fire at an office building in La Farge, Wisonsin:

Over the course of 18 hours, the officers and firefighters from La Farge, along with those from numerous surrounding departments, were faced with a growing array of challenges, including the location of the fire, the materials used in the building’s construction, the limitations of the town’s firefighting infrastructure, and more. The fire would eventually destroy a significant portion of building, resulting in an estimated $13 million in property damage and related losses.

After Chief Stittleburg contacted NFPA, and as more became known about the details and circumstances of the fire, the more it came to resemble a cautionary tale in the use of “green” or “sustainable” construction materials and what they can mean to firefighting efforts. The rooftop PV array, designed to reduce the building’s reliance on fossil fuels, also presented serious challenges to firefighters. In some respects, the La Farge incident became a kind of “perfect storm” fire, one that grouped a handful of challenges I’d seen elsewhere into a single event. NFPA accepted Chief Stittleburg’s invitation to visit La Farge and review the fire, and I was asked to travel to Wisconsin to see for myself how these factors combined to create an especially challenging fire situation—and to bring back the lessons learned at that fire.

Sifting through the ashes…

There were a lot of factors that contributed to not just the fire itself (although according to local news, the actual cause of the fire was never determined), but the manner in which the fire spread, and difficulties associated with fighting the fire. Here is a breakdown:

  • Solar photovoltaic panels on the roof caused numerous problems, especially because during the fire the panels energized the metal roof preventing safe access
  • Continuous concealed airspaces were probably the greatest contributor to the rapid and uncontrollable spread of the fire (more on that later…)
  • Combustible insulation fueled the fire, whereas fiberglass insulation is generally considered noncombustible and is often used as a firestop
  • A major factor in the rapid failure of certain structural components during the fire was the use of lightweight materials including engineered lumber products (also a factor in the failure of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Headquarters) and steel-stud framing
  • Due to the spread of the fire through concealed spaces, the fire sprinkler system was relatively ineffective
  • A rupture of the sprinkler system in the attic resulted in a depletion of significant domestic water stores for the region

Analysis

The story of the fire in La Farge, Wisconsin is not an indictment of green building practices. What it is, is yet another illustration of just how important quality is throughout the built environment.

When you have a large area of a roof that doubles as a source of electricity, guess what? You have to take necessary precautions to avoid inadvertent discharging of that electricity, which could in turn cause serious threats to life-safety and health. If the circuits of PV panels do not automatically shut down when there is a short in the system, or fire is detected, then safeguards need to be implemented. Why do we have Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) required in bathrooms and kitchens? Because electricity and water don’t mix. Neither, apparently, do fire and energized PV panels mix.

Secondly, one of the first things I learned when researching and analyzing fire-resistive construction defects is the importance of managing concealed air space within wall cavities. Open air space within wall cavities allows fire (and the accompanying smoke and heat) to rapidly spread between building areas. In fact, a vertical open air space acts just like a chimney. It doesn’t matter if your building is “green” or not—the basic laws of physics and building science still apply.

Third, as Alter points out, why on earth would anyone use combustible materials for insulation when “green” noncombustible products are readily available? More frustrating for me personally, is the fact that the insulation in question is none other than recycled denim insulation. I was involved in the investigation of a project using this type of insulation. Not only was the insulation to blame for widespread mold (improper installation in a high humidity region), but the manufacturer refused to release any testing data related to the product’s fire resistive qualities. Let’s just say that that case did not end favorably…

Poor quality is still the biggest risk to sustainable design and construction

At one end of the spectrum in the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry, there are folks like Lloyd Alter who continue to push for ever-increasing standards of building performance. At the other end of the spectrum, are people like firefighters that are just hoping that buildings will meet minimum standards of quality so they can go home and see their kids at night.

The fire that devastated the headquarters of Organic Valley in La Farge, Wisconsin doesn’t show the failure of green buildings. It shows the failure of our industry, once again, to meet basic standards of quality.


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