Why Do Modern Construction Materials Burn Faster?

How much time do you think you have to escape in the event of a fire?  


One minute and thirty seconds is all it takes for a typical modern room to be engulfed in flames and smoke.  Less time than you thought?  Thirty years ago, you would have had an average of seventeen minutes before the room had a “flashover”- which is when all of the nearby materials ignite.  With everything we know about fire safety, why are buildings burning so much faster than they used to?


According to research at Underwriter Laboratories (UL), modern construction materials burn faster and hotter than older construction materials. Older buildings were built using solid wood, which in a fire would burn from the outside in, giving it structural security and making it slower to collapse. Not to mention, older furniture was made of natural materials that would burn slower and at lower temperatures.  The longer the burn the better, because it would allow more time for people to evacuate from a building.


However, today’s buildings are built with engineered beams and wood, which are just small pieces of wood compressed together with glue. These materials are lighter and cheaper, which in normal situations can be good, especially if you want to put up a building quickly and efficiently.  Unfortunately, in a fire modern construction materials are much more hazardous than solid wood because these construction pieces are lightweight and use laminated beams and trusses, it will burn all the way through and collapse almost instantaneously in a fire.


Modern furniture and coverings made out of synthetic materials don't help either.  The synthetic material ignites quicker and gives off toxic gasses that are dangerous.  Carpet, curtains, chair seats, and many other modern synthetic products contain hydrocarbons which is a solid form of gasoline. This causes them to ignite quicker and burn hotter and faster than natural materials, in addition they let off deadly gasses like carbon monoxide and cyanide when they burn.


This video from UL shows the drastic difference in burning rates between old and new materials:

That’s why a building’s fire protection system is important to the buildings overall integrity and safety of those who occupy during a fire emergency. Fire and smoke dampers, which are located in the ductwork, prevent the spread of fire and smoke through the ducts. Fire doors and fire-rated walls help to compartmentalize a building by containing the fire to its origin. Lastly, firestopping helps prevent the spread of fire and smoke through gaps and holes that may be located in fire walls or above the ceiling.


Sometimes newer isn’t always better, particularly when it comes to fire safety. But a building’s fire protection features will help ensure safety during a fire, especially in hospitals and nursing homes where many patients may not be easily evacuated in the short amount of time required. But in order to do so, every fire protection system must all be properly working and in compliance with the code.

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