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Since December 2016, 15 local deaths have occurred as a result of fires in low- to mid-rise residential developments. In January of 2017 alone, nine Maryland residents perished in house fires. Now, two new pieces of legislation are being introduced to combat the cause: lightweight combustible wood construction.
Such building code requirements are intended to protect the public. For instance, certain building codes address indoor air quality. Since we spend nearly 90% of our lives inside buildings, these requirements ensure that our environments are safe.
But in some cases, changes to building codes actually have the opposite effect.
At a February committee hearing, Hagerstown Fire Chief Steve Lohr told colleagues and legislators, “Code changes that have gone into effect in Maryland over the last eight years allowing the use of combustible framing materials in taller and larger buildings contain unparalleled levels of risk.”
Consequently, two separate bills have been introduced to address this problem.
Headed by Chairwoman Joan Carter Conway, the Maryland Senate Committee on Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs has introduced a bill that’s focused on regulations for construction in these residential developments. SB 722, which addresses public safety requirements specifically for light frame combustible construction, will be considered by the Maryland State Senate.
Tien Peng, the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association VP for Sustainability, Codes, and Standards, echoed the need for such a bill.
“Building codes are minimum requirements, not the highest performing systems or buildings. Code minimums are simply not adequate to ensure resident comfort, security, or safe harbor from catastrophes. If the state of Maryland doesn’t insist on more fire safe ‘code-plus’ design, minimum is most likely what you will get.”
Senator Conway’s bill was introduced at nearly the same time as another bill put forth by Delegate Cory McCray. The Maryland State House Environment and Transportation Committee recently heard testimony on House Bill 1311, which aims to create and adopt statewide building code regulations pertaining to lightweight combustible wood construction in the same sort of residential buildings.
In addition, Build With Strength, a lobbying group containing members from the insurance industry, engineers, architects, academic, and the Red Cross, is launching print, radio, and online ads for the cause, urging Maryland legislators to pass these bills.
While there’s no word yet as to whether these bills will pass, Fire Chief Lohr sums up the need for urgency on the matter: “I do not think we can afford to wait.”