Does New Jersey Need to Re-Evaluate Its Building Codes?
The New Jersey Building Code is an extensive set of rules and regulations that cover everything from accessibility and energy efficiency to structural design, fire protection, and different types of building materials. As thorough as these codes may seem, critics say they aren’t doing enough to guarantee the safety of New Jersey buildings.
One troubling incident occurred in Edgewater in January. Plumbers were using a blowtorch to work on repairs in a first-floor unit of a luxury apartment complex, which sparked a fire that destroyed nearly 250 of the building’s 408 units. The seven-alarm fire put approximately 1,000 residents out on the street, threatened nearby residences, and resulted in road and school closures the next day.
Fire officials pointed to several elements that caused the fire to spread more rapidly and burn more intensely, including:
- The workers involved contacted their supervisor before calling 911, which delayed notification of emergency personnel by approximately 15 minutes.
- The complex was made of lightweight wood and a roof truss construction method that is more fire-prone than other methods (despite meeting New Jersey Building Code requirements). This construction method makes it easier for fires to spread quickly.
- There were no sprinkler systems installed between the walls or under the roof rafters throughout the complex.
A class-action lawsuit has been filed against AvalonBay, the complex’s developer, alleging that the fire was a result of negligence because the company, along with its delegates, is responsible for constructing and maintaining the property in a safe manner that minimizes the risk for injuries or property damage. According to the lawsuit, the developer either knew or should have known that the construction materials used in the building of the complex increased the fire risk. On the other hand, AvalonBay maintains that the building met all applicable fire and safety codes, which are in place to ensure that occupants can escape a burning building—not to ensure the building will never catch fire.
While fortunately there were no deaths or serious injuries, the dangerous fire raised many questions about the effectiveness of New Jersey’s building regulations. New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson/Bergen) recently announced a collaboration with the Department of Community Affairs to address building codes for multi-family complexes, specifically related to stronger fire regulations, in new legislation. Prieto, an experienced construction code official himself, plans to review the building codes and identify places where they could be more effective. In addition, Princeton and Mercer County officials are asking for an emergent review from the state as a result of the Edgewater blaze.
“We’re calling for this emergent review in light of the fact that the Edgewater building burned so quickly and so horrifically, despite apparently meeting all current code requirements,” Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes said in a statement.