St. Louis apartment fire ignites debate over building materials

A blaze that destroyed a 197-unit apartment building in St. Louis, Mo., displacing 250 residents, has called into question the materials used in the construction of the four-story building. An article on the fire in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the structure was built to code, had working sprinklers, and so-called "draft stops" to slow the spread of fire.

But St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson was still concerned by how quickly the fire moved through the attic. (Although the cause of the July 17 fire remains under investigation, arson is not suspected.) Jenkerson questioned the materials used for the building, even if they were allowed by code. In particular, he raised an issue with the use of “lightweight, synthetic materials” instead of brick and real wood.

"Like every fire chief, I look at the (building) code every year," Jenkerson told the newspaper. "We have a risk perspective that's different from the building trades. You've got to take the costs and weigh it against the risk."

 In the case of the apartment building fire, Jenkerson said that the draft stops and drywall partitions weren't very effective. Each walled-off section of attic contained an abundance of joists, plywood and other combustible building materials.

"In between each draft wall, there was basically a lumberyard," Jenkerson said.

Less than an hour after firefighters arrived on the scene, the top floor began to cave in and they had to abandon the building. No one was killed or injured in the incident. 

Public Safety Director Eddie Roth told the Post-Dispatch said that the use of lightweight building materials was part of "a national debate" and was not unique to St. Louis, which follows national building codes.