METADATA FOR EMTAF
Waltham fire spurs call for tighter state building code
The City Council is seeking legislation to address a change that allowed higher wood-framed residential buildings.
By John Laidler
Waltham city councilors have called for tighter state restrictions on the size of wood-frame residential buildings after a massive blaze tore through a luxury apartment complex under construction near the heart of downtown.
By a 14-0 vote Monday night, the council asked Waltham’s delegation to seek legislation addressing a change in the state building code that increased the allowable height of such buildings. Based on a 2009 change to the International Building Code, Massachusetts allows as many as five wood-framed stories above a concrete first floor.
“The buildings made of this material have shown a propensity to erupt into a conflagration,” Council Vice President Robert G. Logan said in an interview. “So I think the state needs to go back and rethink whether or not to allow that kind of construction, especially in buildings of that size.”
The council referred to its Ordinances and Rules Committee a separate request from Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy — also filed in the aftermath of the July 23 fire — to enact a moratorium on multifamily luxury housing. The committee later tabled the matter, so it remains before the panel.
Logan, who sponsored the motion seeking legislative action on the fire code, said that in speaking to neighbors at the fire scene, “the question that kept coming up was why do they allow those buildings in that area. It seemed like an awfully big building.”
Logan said that cities and towns “are specifically preempted from doing anything to regulate the manner of construction or materials used for anything that’s under the state building code,” which would include limiting the use of wood-framed construction.
“So the only way to address this is at the state level,” he said. “The problem was created when the building code was changed. The only way to fix it is to make a further change in the building code.”
At Logan’s request, councilors suspended their rules to allow the measure to be adopted immediately without committee deliberation on it.
The 10-alarm fire destroyed five buildings in the 246-unit residential complex under construction between Elm and Cooper streets in Waltham. The cause of the fire was under investigation.
The blaze occurred less than a month after the 83-unit Treadmark apartment complex that was being built with wood framing in the Ashmont section of Dorchester burned on June 28.
Dozens of projects are being built in Greater Boston using the format of four or five stories of wood-frame apartments built above a concrete ground floor. The practice has become increasingly popular with developers seeking to build relatively affordable housing. The change to the international building code has also spurred the trend.
Fire officials have said that such buildings are as safe as others once they are fully operational, but are vulnerable during construction.
Interviewed in her office Monday evening, McCarthy said her proposed moratorium was necessary to address the surge of construction of dense multifamily luxury housing that has occurred in Waltham through the granting of special permits by the City Council.
“There’s been a lot of apartments since 2000,” McCarthy said. “Councilor Logan wants to look at the state building code, I’m in favor of that. But they also have to look here,” she said, referring to local zoning.
“The bottom line is people are saying we’ve had enough of these,” she said of luxury apartment complexes.
Asked about the mayor’s proposal, Logan said that McCarthy was “conflating two unrelated issues” — development and building materials.
“If that building had been built with traditional steel and concrete, would there have been a problem? The answer is obvious,” Logan said. “The problem isn’t zoning or the level of development. The problem is what it was built out of.”
The City Council on Monday also requested a comprehensive list of Waltham firefighters and the many others who helped during the day of the fire, so that an event can be scheduled to recognize them.
“What happened last Sunday is unprecedented in the history of the city,” said Kathleen B. McMenimen, a councilor-at-large. “It was a horrible thing that the fire occurred, but just like everything else, whenever there’s something bad that happens in Waltham, it brings out the best….There were so many people trying to do their part in that situation. It’s really a credit to our community.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.