Investigators: Wood high-rise condo, design contest winner, illegal under current law

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Designs for a new high-rise condominium in Manhattan are raising all sorts of concerns because the plans call for the structure to be built with something that's been outlawed since the 19th century.

Later this year, developers hope to begin construction of the nation's first all-wood 10-story heavy timber condo in the heart of Chelsea. It will be the first of it's kind in Manhattan and in the nation, for that matter.

It was one of two winners in the U.S. Tall Wood Building Contest, with 475 West 18th Street Developers winning $1.5 million for their design, which under current New York building code would be illegal if built.

But when the prize money was being awarded last Fall, New York City Department of Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler was on hand praising the project.

"This unique urban environment is going to have a safe timber structure right in the heart of Manhattan," he said. "We are thrilled about the opportunity."

Back in the 1800s, a series of horrific wood structure fires destroyed wide swaths of Lower Manhattan. That led to a law that still exists today banning wood structures in Manhattan more than six stories tall.

"We're actually bringing back something that they learned 150 years ago was a smart idea," John Jay Fire Science associate professor Glenn Corbett said.

Corbett, an editor of Fire Engineering Magazine, says a 10-story heavy timber condo building would be a big step backward in fire safety.

"They can spread fire incredibly fast," he said. "And of course, they create these gigantic fire situations which are uncontrollable for a lot of fire companies."

A warehouse fire in Connecticut showed how uncontrollable heavy timber wood fires can be once they get going. At another warehouse in Connecticut, it took fire fighters 12 hours to bring that heavy timber fire under control.

Still, the developers say the 10- to 16-inch thick wood beams and columns of the condo will make it fire resistant.

"This mass timber is more like a big log," Arup's David Farnsworth said. "So if you were to, you know, drop a couple of big logs in a campfire that's not started yet, and you'd light a match, it doesn't really want to light."

Corbett, though, says that does not alleviate the dangers.

"Yes, it's more difficult to ignite," he said. "But once it's ignited, and once you get a significant fire in there, it's unstoppable."

It's clear if the developers want to build their award-winning 10-story wood condo, they will need to prove the thick timber material is as safe and as fire resistant as concrete and metal construction.

"What we're aiming to achieve here is to get the same two-hour fire rating requirement with timber," Farnsworth said.

But letters from the head of the Uniformed Fire Officials Association sent to Chandler and the FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro show that there are grave concerns about the potential fire safety hazards posed by the high-rise wood structure.

"We've had a long history of problems with wood in New York," Corbett said. "And that's why we don't allow it."

In a response to our report, both the FDNY and the buildings department say they will not allow the timber condo project to go forward unless it "meets or exceeds" fire safety codes.
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