Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Costly Cosmopolitan Fire Attributable To State Building Code Variance

The Cosmopolitan on the Canal apartment complex should have been built with concrete and steel because of its size, but the state building commission instead granted the owners a variance which allowed them to use wood construction, turning the complex into an inferno after someone intentionally set a fire there last week. WISH-TV's Mary McDermott reports:

A state commission granted the developers of the Cosmopolitan on the Canal a code variance, which gave them permission to not follow the current building code for buildings that size.

Documents show the developers of the Cosmopolitan asked for a variance from the state that allowed them to classify the building as four stories rather than five. It was granted, which allowed the building to be framed with wood instead of metal and concrete.

Why ask for that variance? Because, according to an Indianapolis Code Consultant, state code allows builders to use wood framing on buildings that are four stories tall, but not five.

"Basically, the code limits the number of stories and floor area based on the type of materials you use. For example, for combustible materials, wood, there's a limitation on how many stories you can build and how big the floor area can be. Once you're up to five stories, generally you're up to non-combustible construction. Wood framing would not be allowed," said Ralph Gerdes, Code Consultant.

Much of the Cosmopolitan built on a slope along the canal is four stories. But, because a small portion is five stories, the developer had to ask for a variance in order to use the highly combustible wood framing.

A spokesman for Flaherty & Collins, the owner of the apartment complex, claims such variances are common; however, it seems to have been a decision which was made in complete reckless disregard for the surrounding townhomes, apartments and businesses which were were put in danger from last week's fire. Ambers from the fire even reached the State House building because of the strong northerly winds during the fire. The fire would have never gotten that far out of control if steel and concrete had been used. More importantly, firefighters could have entered the building safely to fight the fire without fear of a total structural collapse as occurred during last week's fire. Anyone with any common sense should have known better than to permit such construction in a densely populated downtown area of the City.

It will come as no surprise to you that Flaherty & Collins has made tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to various Indiana politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, over the last several years. That includes $2,500 to Gov. Mitch Daniels.


Unigov said...

Not to sound like a crank, but it's better that it burned up now prior to a hundred+ people moving in. They would be toast.

Great job all around - giant wood buildings are really the way to go !

Downtown Indy said...

I think you're off the mark on this one.

Sure it was wood framed, but the burn characteristics of a structure that's still not closed in, has no fire resistance wallboard, no sprinker system, no fireblocks installed between sections, AND was torched probably with lots of gasoline differs greatly from one that's none of those things.

I don't think wood is the smartest design, but on the other hand it WAS within code other than the small area that dipped down to the canal level.

The variance seems to me to be little more than a technicality. Certainly not a political favor or anything sinister.

Gary R. Welsh said...

This is downtown, not the suburbs. Beyond the fire hazard is the wind concern. Winds can be heavier in the downtown simply because of the wind tunneling effect among the tall buildings. That building would not have withstood the high winds we have experienced in the downtown in the past. It is hazard to the entire area of downtown around it. If you simply look at how difficult of a fire it was for firefighters to fight, you should understand what I'm talking about. I think the building commission would be wise to call in the firefighters who have to deal with buildings like this one before they grant such ridiculous variances that make the building code useless. There is condominium high rise on Spring Street that was built of wood construction. I told the owner when it was being built it was a horrible investment for anyone. The building won't last 30 years, if it's lucky enough not to succumb to fire or wind before then.

Gary R. Welsh said...

I assume the Spring Street developer got a variance as well. That building is taller than 4 stories.

Downtown Indy said...

I think everything residential on the west bank of the canal is wood frame. Same for the condos on the east side that are adjacent to the Cosmos, for that matter. They were as far as I know completely undamaged despite being only a few feet away.

There's nothing magic about being 3 stories instead of 4 or 5. They are just as susceptible to fire. But I don't believe any have burned after construction was completed.

With functioning smoke/fire detectors, fire alarms wired into MECA dispatch and working sprinklers, this would have been nearly impossible to have happened.

I'm interesting in hearing what the arson investigation turned up. Surely there was a LOT of accelerant spread through the structure to get it going so hot, so fast. I wonder how many separate fires they think were started throughout.

But, I am pretty confident they'll have a very hard time getting tenants if they rebuild with the same materials.

artfuggins said...

I tend to agree..this was a perfect storm...with another couples of weeks work, this fire could have been relatively minor....depending on how it was torched and what was used. I think we need to be careful before paranoia takes over.

Patriot Paul said...

There are a lot of questions:
Who are on the commission who decided this blunder?

Is the commission the sole determining decision maker?

Are there no restrictions in a compacted area such as downtown?

How many other variances have been issued for downtown and why?

What steps will be taken to ensure this does not happen again?

Gary R. Welsh said...

David Hannum, Chairman of Garmong Associates in Terre Haute, chairs the Commission.

Anonymous said...

Not to sound like a crank, but it's better that it burned up now prior to a hundred+ people moving in. They would be toast.

By the time the people moved in, they sprinkler system would have been up and running. As such, the system was a few weeks from being installed.

I personally can't blame them from using wood. Yes there are near-by townhomes/condos, but what are they made up? I looked at the building two days ago from the Canal. While it was good the homes to the north didn't go up, if those homes are made of wood, they would pose just as big of hazard as this building did. I find it odd that we require apartment type buildings to have spinkler systems, yet let single family residences be built within 15' yards or less of each other and they don't have to have such systems. The only thing saving urban areas, and the high density housing neighborhoods in the burbs, is our fire services.

Not that long ago, a house in Ransom Place burned down. The two neighboring homes would have went up (they actually did catch fire, but thankfully IFD got there in time to save those homes) totally, in fact, I bet the entire block, if not neighborhood, would have burned down. Even with this danger, if someone re-builds on that lot, they will be allowed to use wood framing _and_ not be required to have a sprinkler system. The embers of this two story house fire pose just as big of threat as the embers from the Cosmo fire. In the end, the thing that matters most is a good fire service to prevent entire city blocks from burning down.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Again, I think when you factor in the shear size of the building(s) involved and their proximity to a densely populated area in the downtown, you strictly adhere to the building code requirements. Those townhouses are wood contruction, but they are below the threshold size for steel and concrete. One should consider whether steel and construction should be required for all construction abutting the canal. The building I live in was originally constructed as a 5-story building (the sixth floor added later) over 100 years ago. It was constructed of a combination of steel, concrete and wood (floors).