March 8, 2021

Lightweight Construction: What You Need To Know

Fire Sprinklers in Lightweight Construction: Affordable Protection for Affordable Materials

Many innovations came along with the suburban boom of the mid-20th century.  One such innovation that made such growth possible – lightweight construction — is still as important today as it was 60 years ago.  

Lightweight construction is a broad term that varies in definition from region to region, and even from department to department.  A blog on firefighter nation offers the following list: “Engineered materials such as metal gusset plate trusses, plywood “I” beams, open web bar joist trusses, [and] unprotected structural steel elements…” Although the definition varies, there is no doubt that these are common elements found in many homes and businesses.

Photo courtesy of NFPA

Without such innovative building materials, American growth and industry would be seriously impeded.  While lightweight construction is an integral part of any home or business, owners must recognize the proactive measures they can take to keep their properties safe from fire.  

This article will describe two common types of lightweight construction, Composite Wood and Metal Gusset Plates, and explore how they are used, potential hazards and how to protect against fire.

Composite Wood

When individuals think of how wood is processed to make building materials for a house, they might assume that a tree trunk is split into beams which are then used for the frame.  While this may be true in many instances, the fact is that most wood for houses, especially wood used for trusses, are made from what is known as “composite wood.”

Composite wood is engineered and is a derivative of traditional wood.  It is comprised of numerous particles, fibers, and strands, all kept together with adhesives.  Because composite wood is man-made, it is much easier to use it in more complex construction.  If a building has arches or any other type of billowing or flowing look, odds are that look was achieved using composite wood.  This allows the architect’s design to become fully realized and minimizes sacrifices for the sake of structural stability.

Despite aesthetics, composite wood also serves a very practical purpose. It is mass-produced, cheap, and widely available to business and homeowners.  Composite wood also requires very little carpentry experience, meaning that homeowners can easily use it for DIY projects.

Composite wood also makes efficient use of source material. Since it is made up of many pieces of wood, there is no worry that one piece may be defective or not perfect, which is a common concern when building with lumber.  This also means that business owners can utilize every piece of wood, so there is little waste.  It also stands to reason that the environment benefits from less wood being wasted, making composite wood eco-friendlier than lumber.

While using composite wood benefits the architect, the home and business owner, and the environment, there are drawbacks.  Composite wood burns faster than traditional lumber, and some claim that when burned, the adhesives can be toxic.  While this does present a hazard, it does not mean that home and business owners should shy away from using this efficient material.  A more effective, cheaper solution would be to install fire sprinklers in the building, thus minimizing the risks for occupants.

Metal Gusset Plates

Metal gusset plates are used in construction to hold two pieces of wood together.  They are traditionally rectangular and can often be seen on the ends of two or more beams.  These plates have tiny teeth on the undersides that dig into the wood, holding it in place and effectively replacing nails.  While this makes production easier if a fire occurs the system can become compromised quickly.

Research has shown that, as a fire grows, the heat causes the metal gusset plates to lose their hold on beams, causing them to pop off, leaving the beams held together solely by friction alone.  This compromised system can result in structural failure and collapse posing a deadly hazard to occupants in the home and the first responders who must enter the building.  To learn more about the hazard gusset plates pose, read the blog on Firehouse.com.

Protecting Buildings with Lightweight Construction

There are Pro’s and Con’s to using lightweight construction materials.  Industry experts offer the substitution of materials as one proposed solution to deal with the potential hazards, but this would be unwieldy, inefficient and not cost-effective.

A better solution would be for home and business owners to take more proactive steps to protect buildings and make them safe.  While lightweight construction is ideal for complex mass production, businesses and homeowners must be made aware that it does have the potential to burn quickly and compromise the structural stability of a building.

Without exception installing a fire sprinkler system is one of the better ways to both protect lives and property for all structures, whether they were built with lightweight construction or traditional building materials.  While smoke detectors play an integral role in alerting the occupants of a fire hazard, fire sprinklers prevent the fire from spreading—which can happen even more quickly in a building that utilizes lightweight construction.

Fire sprinklers are so effective, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has created the Home Fire Sprinkler Initiative which calls for the usage of fire sprinklers in homes across America that utilize lightweight construction.  For more information on their advocacy efforts, visit  www.firesprinklerinitiative.org.

Along with their allies in the NFPA, the New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board and the National Fire Sprinkler Association work to promote fire sprinklers in New Jersey and across the country.  These organizations act as free resource for homeowners, business owners, and fire and code officials to answer fire sprinkler-related questions and concerns.

If you or someone you know is interested in installing a fire sprinkler system in their home or business or has questions about an existing fire sprinkler system, contact us at 866-226-6006 or visit us online at www.saveandprotect.org  

Additional Resources:


NFPA Journal: Lightweight Construction

FireEnginering.com Articles 

MyFirefighterNation.com: Conventional vs. Lightweight Construction

FireRescueMagazine.com: The Dangers of Lightweight Construction – Firefighting Operations

FireHouse.com: Confronting the Dangers of Lightweight Construction

FireLink.Monster.com: The New Normal: Lightweight Construction 

March 8, 2021

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