Mass. officials tour Paris home-building plant with eye toward fire safety

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PARIS — A Massachusetts fire chief who has spent the last several years trying to make modular building construction safer said Wednesday that  KBS Building Systems is doing it right.

“KBS has taken a leadership role in responding,” said Acushnet, Mass., fire Chief Kevin Gallagher, who along with several other Massachusetts fire and building department officials arrived at the KBS headquarters on Route 26 to tour the factory and see the construction safety improvements.

The problem, Gallagher said, is that modular construction standards allow the use of highly flammable polyurethane foam structural adhesive to affix ceilings and partition walls with no other mechanical support. The construction of the so-called “boxes” one on top of the other creates large void spaces. Both issues, he said, present extreme fire hazards to firefighters and modular home occupants.

KBS does about 80 percent of its commercial and residential business outside of Maine, including such places as Lunenburg, Mass., where it is building a large condominium complex.

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The company hosted Gallagher and other Massachusetts officials, including Lunenburg’s Fire Chief Scott Glenny, Acushnet Building Commissioner Jim Marot and fire protection consultant Jon Jones. The group toured the factory where the Lunenburg condominium project is currently under construction.

“Common sense is all it is,” KBS Building Systems General Manager Ray Atkisson said. KBS has voluntarily stopped using the glue and also modifies the large void spaces with fire retardant material, although no state laws prohibit what they were doing. The measures do not cost much and add to the safety of the buildings, he said.

Gallagher said his interest in the issue was sparked by an Acushnet modular house fire in January 2008 that was started by a carelessly discarded cigarette on the farmer’s porch. A sleeping family of six, including four children, were able to escape the fast-moving fire, but four minutes later when the first responders arrived the fire was raging, consuming it quickly from top to bottom.

“It literally exploded,” Gallagher said. “It really caught us by surprise.”

An investigation into what caused the intensity of the fire pinpointed the highly flammable adhesive glue used to hold up the ceiling. It was also discovered that the ceiling fell as soon as the glue melted because there were no mechanical fasteners attached.

Additionally, Gallagher found another problem was caused by the large void space between the two boxes that are used in modular home or condominium construction. The void space runs some 48 feet wide by 14 feet by 20 inches, similar to the old balloon construction of older homes that many firefighters deal with today in a structure fire. In a balloon construction, the void space runs from the cellar to the attic vertically. In a modular construction that same open space runs horizontally, Gallagher said.

“Tactical decisions are based on standard building construction but no one was prepared for what happened that night at the Acushnet house,” said Gallagher, who was awarded the Massachusetts Fire Marshal’s Award in December for identifying the serious fire risk in modular home construction. He has since become a member of the state’s Board of Building Regulations and Standards in an attempt to initiate reforms in modular construction.

Last year, the Massachusetts Building Code was changed to prohibit the sole use of foam adhesives and instead now requires mechanical fasteners in ceilings. But Massachusetts officials said the modular home building industry is generally balking against this and other proposed changes such as reducing the size of the void section in modular construction.

“Their belief its that foam adhesives perform as well under fire conditions as mechanical fasteners,” said Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety.

In an 80-page response to the measures, the Modular Building Systems Association said its members had used foam insulation for the past three decades because it is “safe, code compliant and efficient method of attaching gypsum board and drywall products to structural wood framing,” and that “it provides a superior finish than that available from mechanical fasteners.” The association said in its response that “there was no need to pursue any alternatives to the use of foam adhesive.”

Harris said Tuesday that the manufactured building industry was suppose to conduct a study on foam adhesives but did not come back with the information in time.

The industry has requested that the Board of Building Regulations and Standards allow it to come back with the results once it’s finished its study, Harris said. “That industry continues to work in test methodologies,” he added.

Additionally, Harris said safety changes in the size of gaps between floors and ceilings have been proposed in Massachusetts. A public hearing is set to consider evidence in July.

Meanwhile, despite the lack of these fire safety regulations in Maine, Atkisson says his company will continue to build in what he believes the safety type of building construction.

“I feel now we’re safer than a stick-built home,” Atkisson said. “We need everyone to do this.”

ldixon@sunjournal.com

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