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Modular home fire investigation may lead to building code changes

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State officials are considering significant changes to the state building code in the wake of a Fox Undercover investigation into fast-moving fires in modular homes.

Our report last week highlighted concerns that large empty areas called “void spaces” between floors and highly flammable glue foam used to hold up ceilings pose potential safety hazards to both modular homeowners and firefighters.

In the wake of our story, members of the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards discussed the issues at their meeting this week and proposed changes to the state building code.

Those proposed changes – scheduled to be voted on next month – would change the building code by requiring that the size of the void space between floors be reduced and that ceilings be secured not just with foam glue, but also with mechanical fasteners.

Firefighters worry that ceilings held up only with glue pose a greater danger of collapsing on them during a fire.

“It can be done and it would solve a life safety problem, now,” said one board member.

“This is a safety issue for the homeowner and the firefighters that need to do their job in here,” said a firefighter who spoke to the board.

Acushnet Fire Chief Kevin Gallagher, who has been lobbying the board since 2008 to address concerns about fire safety in modular homes, was encouraged after the meeting.

“I think they were focused today more so on this issue than the past,” Gallagher said.

“This is a developing issue. The news story last week on Fox helped focus members of the board and bottom line is next month there will be two proposals before them to address concerns that we identified two years ago.”

Fox Undercover’s first report, which aired March 2, focused on two devastating fires in modular homes in 2008, one in Acushnet and one in Hanson.

In that story, Gallagher asserted that many modular homes are built with a large empty space between the first and second floors that firefighters call a void space and with flammable foam adhesive that works like glue to hold up the ceilings.

“Once the fire gets into the void space, it destroys that glue,” Gallagher told us. “It’s just going to drop the ceiling, and in (the Acushnet fire) that’s what we believe contributed to the spread of this fire.”

At the meeting of the state board this week, Gallagher said: “Nobody seems to be connecting the dots, but we’ve had two fires in Massachusetts. Two of them completely destroyed new homes.”

All along, the modular home industry has defended its building practices, insisting its homes are safe, and calling our investigation misleading.

Even the state’s top building official, Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Gatzunis, who has his own representative on the state board, told us last month that modular homes are safe. When asked, he said he himself would live in a modular home.

Gatzunis also told us that as far as he knows, modular homes must use the foam glue so that ceilings are not damaged while they’re being transported. “I don’t believe that they can be built without the glue,” the commissioner said.

But we discovered one modular home builder which is already doing just that.
KBS Building Systems of Maine built a modular home that’s now going up in Medford. There is no flammable foam adhesive in the home. Instead the ceilings are attached with fasteners to metal strips, which are themselves attached to ceiling joists.

Without the foam, “(it’s) a little more difficult and a little more costly, but not dramatically,” says KBS general manager Ray Atkisson. He says the fastener solution costs about $500 more for a 3,000-foot home and that the ceiling look just as good when they reach the homeowner’s lot.

Asked why his company decided to abandon the foam adhesive, Atkisson says: “Just because there’s a concern, I mean I know there’s a concern, we try and correct the concern.”

That concern with the foam adhesive was raised after the Acushnet modular home fire by the Needham Housing Authority, which did not want the flammable foam in the units it was buying from KBS.

The contractor installing the home, BTA Development Corp., is also filling the void space between floors with fire resistant insulation. Asked why his company is taking these steps even though they are not required by the state building code, BTA owner Alex Bezanson says: “Because it’s the right thing to do. Our homes are not the cheapest homes out there, but we try to do quality work all the time. And if this is one more thing to help us do a quality home, we do it.”

Chief Gallagher says that’s proof to him that changes can and should be made in modular homes. “It is necessary for occupant safety; it is necessary for firefighter safety,” he says.

Reacting to our story this week, the state Department of Public Safety released a statement: “Given our concerns with the overspray and other drawbacks of the adhesive, we’re anxious to learn about any new construction methods that help make modular construction a safer alternative for our citizens.”

We asked the Modular Building Systems Association, which represents modular home manufacturers, about the proposed changes to the state building code. It issued a statement that did not address that, but did say: “…the modular home industry is more highly regulated than other forms of construction and actually builds a higher quality home. A discussion of the facts and relevant technical and engineering data would bear this out.”

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