House Fires, Old Homes, and New Construction

There have been claims in the past few years that fires spread more quickly in new homes filled with synthetic furniture than in older homes with solid wood furniture. Though there are some holes in this claim, it brings up some important things to consider when configuring your fire safety plan to match the unique risks of your house:

Open Floor Plans Can Be a Risk

Even though modern styles may not be as risky as originally claimed, the open floor plans and high ceilings prevalent in today’s construction do enable fire to spread quickly through all areas of the house. The open concept removes all barriers that could slow a fire’s path across a level of your house, while also feeding more oxygen to the fire’s original source. Though this does not mean that open floor plans are a bad idea, it would be smart to incorporate more smoke alarms throughout the open levels and be hypersensitive about flammable materials in these areas so that the likelihood of a fire starting is as minimal as possible.

The Details Matter for Both Old and New

For every way that new construction may be posing new threats for fast-moving fires, there is another way that older construction fails to meet modern standards. Whether you are building a brand new home or moving into an old one, it is the details that make all the difference when it comes to the risk of a fire. For new homes, it is important that synthetic, fast-burning materials be surrounded by sturdier, less flammable ones, even if at the cost of minor aesthetic preferences. In old homes, electrical wiring and antique heat sources such as older radiators are major concerns. You want to make sure these have been brought up to current code requirements to be sure your home is as safe as possible.

Consider Your Furniture with Care

One of the most disputed claims concerning fires in modern homes had to do with furniture: is the cheaper, more environmentally-conscious furniture of today more flammable than the solid wood furniture of past decades? The answer is… yes and no. Synthetic materials do pose legitimate concerns. They do burn faster and release toxic chemicals which are hazardous to inhale. However, older “legacy” furniture has a much faster flashover time. “Flashover” refers to the ignition of the combustible materials around the burning item in an enclosed space. Interestingly, this all seems to point to the furniture of each age possessing risks that were particularly bad when combined with the house styles prevalent at the same times. The best thing to do, as always, is to keep fire away from furniture. This means candles, matches, space heaters, old extension cords, anything that can cause the fire to start in the first place.

What is the modern family to do in order to remain fire safe while living in a house that could contain some or all of these risks? The NFPA started the Fire Sprinkler Initiative to promote the installation of fire sprinkler systems in residential buildings. They have found that the presence of fire sprinkler systems drastically improves the fate of the house and its residents in the event of a fire. If that option is not available to you, the careful observance of basic fire safety measures, such as installing and maintaining smoke detectors and creating a home fire escape plan, will make a big difference should a fire start in your home.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Fire Prevention Week article! As always, we are a call away with answers to any of your fire safety questions.