AvalonBay Community’s Fire Elimination Program for Wood Frame Construction

Technologies such as high-def perimeter cameras, sensors that detect temperature changes and a spray-on process that retards fire in wood are reducing fires in wood frame construction.
By A. Vincent Vasquez
April 7, 2020

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Editor’s Note: This article is the third in the Construction Tech Talks series, highlighting technology trends and digital transformations from the perspective of industry leaders. Conducted by Vince Vasquez, founder and CEO at PrecisionStory, this valuable enterprise takes the form of both an audio interview with a forward-thinking, tech-savvy CEO and an accompanying article that seek to illustrate how to leverage complex technology via the exploration of successful use cases.

Michael Feigin, chief construction officer at AvalonBay Communities, discusses various technologies used in a company fire elimination program for wood frame construction.

Wood, of course, is a great building material. It's cheap, versatile and sustainable. There's only one problem with wood: it burns. And construction site fires can be nasty things, leading to deaths compounded by massive financial losses.

As such, developing fire prevention programs is an important issue for the construction industry, which includes AvalonBay because wood frame construction comprises up to 75% of their annual workload. In 2019, that statistic amounted to between $300 and $400 million of wood-based construction.

In response, Feigin and his team took on the development of a holistic program that included both process changes and the deployment of new technologies to make AvalonBay construction sites less at risk for fires.

Watching Out

Early on, AvalonBay deployed a manual fire watch, in which an employee was engaged to manually review a jobsite for any potential causes of fire.

A main challenge with this approach is the human element: It's late at night and people get both distracted and sleepy. The other challenge is AvalonBay construction sites are often very large, covering considerable square footage. For example, if a fire were to start in a location just visited by a watch person, that person might rush to return to the location and the building could still be gone.

As a result, Feigin and his team concluded that fire watches are effective to a point—but maybe other technologies could do better?

Candid Camera

One of the first technologies AvalonBay invested in was the deployment of state-of-the-art, high-definition perimeter cameras on select jobsites.

Some of the features included the ability to cover large areas, infrared to see at night and attached speakers. But the most important update was the nuance of central station monitoring, allowing for constant observation of the jobsite with room for employee relief.

A primary objective of this technology is to prevent arson, which is one of the biggest contributors to jobsite fires. With the perimeter cameras in place, first thing intruders encounter is a warning via the camera speakers. The majority of trespassers, in the experience of AvalonBay, exited the premises on hearing the warning—problem solved!

Sense of Security

Next, Feigin and his team looked at deploying technology to protect the interiors of jobsites. After some investigation, they teamed up with Pillar Technology, a company that makes sensors specifically for jobsites. The sensors are deployed throughout a project in critical areas, connected over Wi-Fi to a home base.

The sensors detect significant changes in temperature, among other qualities like moisture and airborne particulates. The client, AvalonBay in this case, is able to set the unique temperature parameters that apply to their site, which would trigger a possible fire alert. For Feigin, the sensors provide a 24/7 jobsite EKG. These sensors have been deployed on every one of AvalonBay’s wood frame projects.

Proof Positive

But what happens if everything else fails? AvalonBay still needed a safety net—a piece of technology called M-Fire, a proprietary technology for a spray-on, dipped process for wood that takes unfinished wood and basically renders it fireproof.

Laboratory tests and fire tests from local fire departments have demonstrated that a wood treated with M-fire is more fire retardant than fire-treated lumber. If set on fire, the wood will char but, eventually, the fire goes out and you're left with a standing structure.

Logistically, today, wood is sprayed at all AvalonBay jobsites nationwide. To date, there have been no issues or delays in construction. And since AvalonBay first started deploying M-Fire in the early summer of 2017, they have not had a single jobsite fire.

Looking Ahead

In addition to deploying cameras, sensors and M-Fire, AvalonBay has also implemented additional process changes such as the elimination of any hot works on all of their projects and no heat sources are allowed within their wood frame buildings on construction.

Feigin shares that even with their holistic fire prevention program, AvalonBay cannot believe they have eliminated all risk of fire for their wood frame construction.

That said, Feigin believes a next major challenge is to drive down the cost of the various technologies, while also working to make them even easier to deploy—as Feigin and his team at AvalonBay Communities make fire prevention just part of the building process like everything else.

by A. Vincent Vasquez

Vince Vasquez has more than 30 years of experience in enterprise sales, marketing and engineering. Working with 20 industry leaders, he is the co-author of Precision Construction, which teaches the fundamentals of IoT with a focus on the construction industry. He is also the co-founder and CEO of PrecisionStory, which brings Precision Storytelling—a new and innovative approach to enterprise storytelling—to market. Vince has an MBA from Stanford University, an MS in Computer Engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University and a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley. 

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