Shortcuts in townhouse building often mean compromised safety

Townhouses are popular because they supply more privacy than condominiums but have lower construction costs than freestanding single-family homes. At a time when the price of new detached single-family houses in Chicago has become exorbitant, townhouses are a more affordable alternative that allows families to stay in the city. But this uniquely urban form of housing also requires safety measures that too often go unmet.

The International Residential Code 2000 (IRC) defines a townhouse as a single-family dwelling built in a group of three or more attached units in which each home extends from foundation to roof, with open space on at least two sides. Having completed several hundred inspections of townhomes over the years, I have found five common shortcomings that affect safety in this unique product type. You should look out for these potential problems when purchasing and make sure that your home inspector has adequately addressed fire safety.

Inadequate, incomplete or damaged firewall assemblies at the building’s exterior. The IRC requires a one-hour fire resistant assembly at the exterior wall within three feet of the lot line. This rating is measured from both sides of the wall. Two layers of 5/8-inch type X gypsum board or drywall typically satisfy this requirement. Many of the new townhomes are full of strapping holes and incomplete assemblies at their exterior walls. Any holes in these walls should be cleared up before occupancy. Moving in before your builder has addressed this requirement can compromise your safety.

Improperly glazed areas. Glazing must be stamped and identified for safe use when placed in areas of human impact. Safety glazing, typically tempered or laminated glass, is required in such places as shower stalls and entry doors. If a window is less than 18 inches off the finished floor, it too should be safety glazed. Any glass adjacent to the entry door and less than 60 inches tall must be safety glazed and of course, so must the entry door glass. Look for the little stamp, usually in one corner of the glass.

Stair Handrails. Handrails used when climbing stairs must be as uninterrupted as possible, so they can be used in areas where there would be abundant smoke if fire broke out. The rail should be at least 1/4 inch but no longer than 2 5/8 inches in diameter. Rails should be 34 to 38 inches above the stair nose. These handrails are usually in place but often they only partially cover the walls and stair runs they are meant to service. Ask for more – it is a life safety issue. What could it possibly cost the developer, $200? When in doubt install the rail.

The issue is especially important in townhomes. Although this type of housing puts an emphasis on “vertical living,” the handrails are frequently incomplete.

Smoke Alarms. Single- and multi-station smoke alarms are a requirement but are sometimes missed even today. The IRC calls for their use in three separate areas: in sleeping rooms, outside of sleeping rooms and in a corridor on each level of a home. All smoke alarms must be interconnected. Builders do place them in the halls on each level, but amazingly, we often find that they are not present in individual bedrooms.

Fire resistance-rated separation. When three or more dwelling units are located in the same structure, a specific fire resistance-rated separation is required between dwelling units. Look for drywall to extend up to the attic of your new townhome and run all the way to the underside of the roof. This helps contain your neighbor’s fire, should one ever develop, to his or her side of the building. It also makes the work of thieves, who can sometimes gain access at this point, just a little harder.

There also should be a fire rated assembly between floors. You should see mortar, caulk or grout around the base of each floor penetration, literally a hole in the floor used to feed mechanicals between floors. Look around the conduit coming through the floor. Is there a gap? Can you see to the floor below? If so, then you need to close up your floor hole or risk smoke infiltration during a fire. Unfortunately, once the dry wall is in you will not be able to check for this problem.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.

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