We have complained many times about how foam insulation and plastic foamy furniture fillings are serious dangers in fires. We also have noted the problems with open vs closed separate kitchens. And don’t get me started about the problems of McMansions. Now it turns out that according to a UL study, all of these factors conspire together to make fires in todays homes far more deadly.
Mr. Homegrown of Root Simple picked apart a Washington Post story and the UL report behind it; he likes traditional house design and notes that in every renovation of a nice old house, people rip out the walls.
Sadly, homeowners and house flippers have ruined most of these old houses by removing walls and built-in cabinets in a misguided attempt to remake the interiors into the style that just won’t die: mid century modern. … an unintended consequence of this open floor plan trend: greatly increased fire danger both for residents and the firefighters who put out those fires. It turns out that all those old walls, doors, windows and traditional flooring materials had a purpose: they made our homes vastly safer.
1961 Hotpoint kitchen/Promo image
Now I would argue that the open kitchen is not a mid-century modern concept but is more recent than that. But according to the UL study, fire safety is another good reason to have the kitchen in a separate room:
Another trend in homes is to remove walls to open up the floor plan of the home. As these walls are removed the compartmentation is lessened allowing for easier smoke and fire communication to much of the home. In the living spaces doors are often replaced with open archways creating large open spaces where there were traditionally individual rooms . . . Combining of rooms and taller ceiling heights creates large volume spaces which when involved in a fire require more water and resources to extinguish. These fires are more difficult to contain because of the lack of compartmentation. Water from a hose stream becomes increasingly more effective when steam conversion assists in extinguishment, without compartmentation this effect is reduced. The simple tactic of closing a door to confine a fire is no longer possible in newer home geometries.
I have often complained about the flammability of foam, and the almost useless flame retardants that are added to them, but this video demonstrates how quickly the flames spread through a room filled with modern furniture.
And then, there is something I never knew, another reason for me to hate drywall; it is thought of as the great answer to fire safety, but guess what?
As drywall compound is heated it dries and falls out exposing a gap for heat to enter the wall space and ignite the paper on the back of the wallboard and the wood studs used to construct the walls. Gypsum wallboard also shrinks when heated to allow gaps around the edges of the wallboard. Plaster and lath does not have the seams that wallboard has and therefore does not allow for heat penetration as early in the fire. This change in lining material allows for easier transition from content fire to structure fire as the fire has a path into void spaces.
© Shannon Kyles and Walter Furlan with 200 year old window, before restoration
And wait, there’s more! I go on forever about how wonderful old windows are compared to new ones, but it turns out they are safer in fires, too.
The legacy window glass was held in place with putty-like substance and there was room in the frame for expansion of the glass. The modern glass was fixed very tightly into the frame with an air tight gasket and metal band, to provide better thermal insulation. This configuration did not allow for much expansion and therefore stressed the glass as it heated and expanded.
© Designer Eco Tiny Homes
Mr. Homegrown then points out that “Small and tiny house proponents will be happy to hear that small is better when it comes to fire safety. The bigger the home the bigger the fire.” I am not sure that is entirely true; many tiny houses are serious firetraps and have terrible exiting from tiny lofts where the smoke from a fire would collect in seconds. I am now going to suggest that TreeHugger not cover any tiny house that doesn’t have a window big enough to jump out of in its loft. But I totally concur with his conclusion:
The stark truth is that a small, old house with traditional furniture is a lot safer than a modern open floor plan home with clutter and big couches. House flippers should think twice before ripping out that nice old lath and plaster wall.
I might respond that it is also a good reason to go mid-century modern with a minimalist interior and vintage furniture. Much less to burn!