We have been taking on an increasing number of cases involving claims related to missing or improper fire walls between condominium units and missing or improper fire damping or draft-stopping in ceilings. In our experience, clients frequently tend to discount the importance and value of these claims, reasoning that they are really just technical Code violations that are no big deal. However, we have recently seen several serious fires in condominiums caused or exacerbated by these deficiencies that have created massive damage and severe dislocation to the affected unitowners.
Fire-rated walls and ceilings are designed to slow the spread of fire so that fire-fighters have more time to battle the fire and thereby save lives and minimize property damage. Fire walls are designed by architects. Pursuant to the applicable BOCA provisions governing that particular type of construction, they are typically made of materials that have a fire rating of one or two hours. This means that they are designed to delay the spread of fire for one or two hours–depending upon the fire rating of the walls. A fire-rated wall or ceiling with a one hour fire rating would typically be constructed using 2 layers of 5/8″ type X gypsum board. Thus, if the wall is actually constructed of standard gypsum board that is ½” thick, that will not provide the necessary fire protection. The same analysis applies if there is a fire rated access hatch required.
A fire that starts on a balcony or upper deck and spreads across the exterior siding to the roof area can quickly engulf the attics and roofs of surrounding units. Fire suppression systems are typically below these locations so they will be useless in stopping the fire. The fire-rated walls and ceilings are therefore particularly important in slowing the spread of the fire until the Fire Department can get fire-fighters to stop the fire. The absence of Code-compliant fire-rated walls and ceilings can turn what should have been a manageable fire into a disaster.
Draft-stopping is used to seal penetrations through floors and ceilings. Typically this becomes an important fire-safety issue in multi-story buildings where plumbing pipes, flue pipes, HVAC pipes or electrical conduits or anything else runs vertically up the inside of the building through the floors and ceilings of units and up through the roof. If there is no sealant around the pipes, a fire starting on a lower floor can be fanned by the drafts caused by the unsealed penetrations where the pipes go through various floors and ceilings and thereby spread very quickly to higher floors, fanning the flames to the point where they eventually engulf the entire building.
We have seen condominium buildings where the lack of adequate fire-rated ceilings and partition walls is exacerbated by the lack of draft-stopping, which, in turn, is aggravated by HVAC contractors who cut holes in fire rated ceilings in utility rooms inside individual units in order to install dampers inside the ducts. This destroyed the fire rated ceilings. In one such condominium there was a catastrophic fire that caused massive damage and forced numerous families to relocate until their units are reconstructed.
The bottom line is that fire safety is a serious issue and should be a major concern to all property owners and to community associations undergoing transition. As part of the transition process, a thorough review should be undertaken to discover any lack of compliance with all applicable fire and related building codes.