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Dual Boston Blazes Prompt a New Look at Construction Risks

Insurance Law360
August 3, 2017

By Kristin Suga Heres
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In recent weeks, massive conflagrations destroyed two Boston-area residential developments in the midst of construction — one in the city’s Ashmont neighborhood in Dorchester, the other in Waltham, a small but bustling city in the heart of Massachusetts’ technology corridor.

While details continue to emerge about the two fires, the similarities between them are striking. Both fires struck as the unoccupied, multi-unit properties neared completion. Both fires intensified quickly, consuming the lightweight (primarily wood) construction materials used in each project. Both properties were in compliance with applicable building codes at the time of the fires. Neither building had a sprinkler system that was online at the time of the fires.

While, thankfully, neither fire resulted in the loss of life, in both cases, the property losses were extensive. In downtown Waltham, concrete stairwells and a parking garage are all that remain of the development which once stood on the site. In Dorchester, officials are still trying to determine what, if anything, can be salvaged of the Treadmark building.

These jarringly similar fires illuminate the unique vulnerabilities of under-construction properties and present an opportunity for developers, local governments, and insurance companies alike to examine current practices and make changes where necessary. Ignoring these losses, and the lessons they hold, could be a grave mistake with costly and potentially tragic consequences.

Fire Ravages Dorchester’s Treadmark Building

Fire broke out at the nearly complete, but yet-to-be occupied, Treadmark building on the afternoon of June 28. The first inhabitants of the 83-unit, mixed condominium/apartment building in Dorchester had been slated to move in as early as mid-July. The fire spread quickly, consuming the mostly-wood building and causing the roof to collapse under the weight of air conditioning units.

At the time of the fire, sprinklers had been installed in the six-story building, but were not yet activated. According to some reports, it appears that the building was not required to have its sprinklers on-line because the building had not yet received its certificate of occupancy. Safety inspections had been scheduled to take place the day after the fire.

At the end of July, authorities reported that the Treadmark fire was caused when an improperly installed exhaust pipe ignited combustible materials. While the heat-bearing pipe should have been at least a foot away from any combustible materials, it appears it was a mere three inches away. The Boston fire commissioner’s report revealed that construction workers on site on the day of the fire delayed in calling the fire department for nearly 90 minutes after they first smelled smoke in the building. This delay allowed the fire to escalate to six-alarms before it was ultimately knocked down.

While the Treadmark building is reportedly not a total loss, the damage was extensive. The developer has indicated its intention to complete the project; however, the timeline for the project, as well as its scope, is uncertain.

Nightmare On Cooper and Elm Streets

Just weeks after the Treadmark fire, in the predawn hours of Sunday, July 23, a ten-alarm conflagration consumed residential complex under construction on the banks of the Charles River in downtown Waltham. Fire departments from as many as 12 neighboring communities were called upon to extinguish the blaze, the rapid spread of which was accelerated by stronger-than-normal winds. Hundreds of local residents, including many elderly persons, were evacuated from neighboring buildings. In addition to the complex itself, a local auto body shop was destroyed, along with at least 20 vehicles. Power to the surrounding area was disrupted for several hours, and ash and embers rained down on nearby streets.

Prior to the fire, the development near the corner of Cooper and Elm Streets consisted of a five-story building containing 264 luxury rental units. Initially permitted in 2015, the project was in the final stages of construction on the morning of the fire. Like the Treadmark Building, the Cooper Street development was constructed primarily of wood. The investigation into the cause of the Waltham fire is ongoing. While officials have stated publicly that the fire was not suspicious, they have asked for the public’s help in locating footage of the fire in its early stages in order to assist in their investigation. The fate of the Cooper Street project remains unclear.

A Material Problem?

In recent years, an increasing number of developers in the Boston area have eschewed the use steel construction in mid-rise residential construction projects in favor of cheaper, lighter-weight materials, including wood. While these materials are attractive from an economic perspective, their susceptibility to fire — particularly while a structure is under construction — is an issue that has raised some concern.

Although wood has long been a building material of choice in New England and elsewhere, the adoption of the International Building Code in Massachusetts in 2009 paved the way for wood to replace steel in many new, large-scale construction projects. Current state building codes permit wood-framed buildings up to six-stories tall. This trend has alarmed some local officials in Greater Boston. In the wake of the Cooper Street fire, Waltham’s mayor, Jeannette McCarthy, went on record calling wood frame construction “idiotic” and “insane.”[1]

The type of wood used and style of construction in large-scale residential development projects have also garnered attention in recent weeks. Boston’s fire commissioner has alluded publicly to the fact that the Treadmark Building was constructed using smaller cuts of lighter-weight lumber, which are less fire-resistant than larger, heftier cuts. Other commentators have noted that using truss-style construction instead of solid wood construction results in increased void spaces where fires can grow and spread.[2]

The Boston-area blazes are not the first time that “lightweight” wood construction methods have come under fire. In the winter of 2015, an occupied Avalon apartment complex was gutted by fire in Edgewater, New Jersey, displacing more than 500 residents. The truss-style wood framing of the structures consumed by that blaze was identified as a primary reason for the particularly destructive nature of that fire. While the Edgewater fire prompted legislative efforts to address increased fire safety in the construction of residential projects, these efforts have largely fallen flat. In late July 2017, proposed legislation aimed at changing New Jersey’s building codes and improving sprinkler regulations stalled after lobbying groups applied significant opposition to the amendments.

Risky Business

The fires in Dorchester and Waltham are stark reminders of the risks faced by large development projects that are in the course of construction. These structures are particularly vulnerable to the extent fire suppression systems and alarms are not up-and-running. Also, the lack of round-the-clock surveillance at unoccupied locations also presents opportunities for fires to intensify undetected for hours.

Unfortunately, there is no single, sure-fire way to prevent all course-of-construction losses. As the Treadmark fire reveals, human error (e.g., the lack of timely reporting of a fire) can play a major role in fire losses regardless of the precautionary measures taken. However, state and local authorities, as well as insurance companies, should re-examine these risks and evaluate whether improvements can be made to the way we address these risks.

It remains to be seen whether the recent Massachusetts losses will have an impact on building codes, construction practices or the underwriting of construction risks; however, simply ignoring the blaring alarms would be both foolish and costly.

Kristin Suga Heres is a partner in the Boston office of Zelle LLP. Her practice focuses on the resolution of insurance and reinsurance coverage disputes.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.


[2] Paulin, Benjamin, “Officials Cast Wary Eye On Wood-Frame Complexes”, The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA) 1 (July 27, 2017).

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