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Wood-Frame Apartments Gaining Popularity With Developers Despite Fire Risk

Amid rising construction costs, developers are increasingly building apartments with wood as a way to save money, even as recent fires like last month's five-alarm blaze in College Park, Maryland, highlight potential dangers of wood-framed projects. 

The five-alarm fire at Wood Partners' Fuse 47 in College Park caused $39M in damage.

As wood-frame apartment construction has risen across the country, so too has the frequency of high-profile apartment fires. Last month's fire at Wood Partners' Fuse 47 project in College Park, which had begun pre-leasing for a summer delivery, caused $39M in damages. 

Two weeks later, firefighters responded to a minor fire at the under-construction 10th Street Flats project in Clarendon, a neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. In Oakland, a fire destroyed a wood-framed apartment on May 13, the second time it burned down in less than a year. 

These high-profile apartment fires have raised concerns about wood construction in recent months, but developers with wood-frame apartment buildings in the pipeline show no signs of changing course.

A rendering of Foulger-Pratt's Eckington Park, a planned wood-frame apartment building

Foulger-Pratt, one of DC's largest developers, has several wood-frame apartments in its pipeline. It has plans for a 400-unit apartment building in Eckington, a 329-unit project on Capitol Hill and a 614-unit White Flint project, which will all be constructed with wood. 

The developer's decision to use wood for all of these projects comes down to cost, Foulger-Pratt senior vice president Dick Knapp said. Building with concrete is significantly more expensive than wood, and concrete costs are rising at a much faster rate.

The difference between the two had once been about $30K/unit, but a recent spike in concrete costs has made it as much as $70K/unit more expensive than wood, according to Foulger-Pratt's construction arm. 

Foulger-Pratt senior vice president Dick Knapp at a Bisnow event in 2014

"Stick is really the hot thing right now," Knapp said. "What’s driving the trend is the greater disparity between the cost of wood and concrete."  

This disparity is significant enough, Knapp said, that in today's environment of tightened construction lending, it can make the difference between getting a deal done and having it fall apart. 

Developers who build apartments with concrete, in addition to having fewer safety risks, can also build to a higher density. But changes to the International Building Code in 2015 have allowed wood buildings to grow taller.

Mill Creek Residential's Josh Posnick, Joe Muffler and Sean Caldwell

Developers could previously build five stories of wood above a concrete podium with one level of concrete or steel underneath. The 2015 change allowed for two or even three levels below the podium, meaning wood buildings could rise up to eight stories high. 

This code change made wood buildings more appealing to developers, especially in DC where buildings are already restricted to about 12 floors. A developer planning a 12-story apartment building in one of DC's core submarkets would not want to sacrifice four levels of units just to save money with wood, Mill Creek Residential senior managing director Sean Caldwell said. But for planned nine- and 10-story projects, the savings could be worth sacrificing some density. 

"You have to balance if the additional density with concrete will offset or not offset the savings with stick-frame," Caldwell said. "That’s the balance I think every developer looks at with every deal."

A rendering of Mill Creek's View at Waterfront

Mill Creek, one of the country's most prolific apartment builders, uses wood for most of its apartment projects and is building DC's first five-over-two podium building in Southwest DC, said Mill Creek vice president Josh Posnick, who is leading the project. The View at Waterfront's 276-unit Phase 2 broke ground in September and is designed to appear consistent with its neighboring buildings, designed by I.M. Pei decades ago.

Recent advances in construction have allowed wood-frame buildings to match the quality of concrete high-rise projects so residents can hardly tell the difference, Caldwell said. One of the main issues was that noise can travel through wooden walls more easily, so Mill Creek has put extra effort into soundproofing its buildings to afford residents the same privacy they would get with concrete. 

"We don’t want a resident to feel like stick-frame is of a lesser quality," Caldwell said. "Or if there’s an investor 10 years from now, we want them to feel like the building has the same quality as any high-rise."

Fire trucks attempting to put out the fire at the Fuse 47 apartment building in College Park

The cause of the College Park fire is still being investigated, but it spread easily because the project was still under construction and the sprinkler system had not been installed. Two minor injuries occurred. Wood Partners did not respond to requests for comment. 

Prince George's County Department of Permitting Inspections and Enforcement director Haitham Hijazi said, even during construction, buildings are routinely inspected by county and third-party inspectors to ensure safety. He could not comment more on the College Park fire while it is still under investigation. 

Developers take extra precautions to prevent fires when building with wood, Caldwell said. Mill Creek has security guards monitoring its active sites around the clock, it builds the exterior walls with fire-retardant wood and it installs more extensive sprinkler systems for higher-density projects. 

The concrete industry has seized on the recent spate of fires to lobby against wood construction. Kevin Lawlor, a spokesperson for the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association's Build With Strength initiative, argues that developers building with wood are potentially sacrificing the safety of their residents for the sake of higher profits.

“When they testify that it’s cheaper to build with wood I say, 'Show me a wooden building that has lower rents for residents,'” Lawlor said. “I don’t see where that cost savings is recognized. I get it, that’s capitalism, but that’s not a very winning argument to consumers who want to be in safe buildings and soundproof buildings with more energy savings.”  

A file photo of a wood-frame construction site

The wood industry is pushing back against these efforts. American Wood Council vice president of codes and regulations Kenneth Bland said it is important to recognize that these high-profile fires have occurred before residents move in. 

"We know that once a building is finished and the sprinkler is installed, the detectors are in place, the fire doors and all the requirements of code are met, that for the most part, the performance of these buildings are the same whether concrete, steel or wood frame," Bland said.  

But Bland recognizes that construction fires are still a big problem. To help prevent them, AWC has created educational videos, manuals and training courses for anyone working on a job site to heighten awareness and teach prevention tips.  

The risk of construction fires has not scared developers away from building with wood. Knapp said Foulger-Pratt has not changed its calculus at all and plans to continue to pursue wood-frame apartments, acknowledging the need to remain vigilant of the risks. He expects wood-frame apartments will become even more popular with developers as construction costs continue to rise.

"The benefits far outweigh the negatives," Knapp said. "We’re under more pressure to find a way to squeeze more value out of our deals, and substituting high-density stick construction for concrete is a classic way to value engineer."