New rules needed after Treadmark fire

The fallout from the June 28 fire that ravaged the Treadmark building on Dorchester Avenue continues this week. Boston Fire officials have determined that the fire’s cause was multi-dimensional— from a hot exhaust pipe positioned too closely to flammable construction materials, an extended delay in calling 911, and a sprinkler system that was in place but not turned on.

Fire Commissioner Joe Finn’s conclusion offers a bitter pill to swallow: This fire — even if it was just an accident— should have been prevented, or at the very least caught, before it got out of hand. Instead, by the time trained fire personnel were called in, it was essentially “too late.” The fire had consumed enough of the space between the roof and the sixth floor that the section was unstable. In fact, Finn’s lieutenants had to order firefighters out of the building as a roof collapse was imminent.

At this point, we still do not know for certain whether the Treadmark building can be rebuilt— or how long it might take if that is viable. The sincere wish of those of us who live and work around the scarred remains of the building is that it rise from those ashes and fulfill the original vision of its designers and builders and future occupants.

But it is also clear that some details about how the Treadmark— and other large buildings like it— are constructed will need to change.

The city’s top building inspector— William ‘Buddy’ Christopher— said on Wednesday that the exhaust pipe that acted as the torch in the fire should have had more clearance between its hot surface and flammable materials in the building. The fact that it did not must be accounted for and corrected here and in all instances.

But more broadly, perhaps, it will be necessary to require that all buildings under construction have an active fire suppression system— sprinklers— in place well before an occupancy permit is sought. The safety of the men and women who are laboring to build these taller, wooden structures should dictate that for certain. And, if Commissioner Finn says that buildings like the Treadmark are “very dangerous” while under construction because they don’t have active sprinklers, that seems reason enough to mandate that they should be a definitive date in the build.

Building codes in Boston— and indeed statewide— certainly allow for “stick-built” wooden structures to rise. That seems unlikely to change. Treadmark was to include 51 rental units that would have become reasonably affordable homes to people with a mix of incomes— along with 32 market-rate condos. That is the kind of mix that this community has said we want and need. Taller, more dense structures on appropriate sites close to public transit nodes is still the right formula for this growing city.

But we also want these buildings to be as safe as possible— both during their construction and certainly once they are occupied. Christopher indicated that the Walsh administration will review the new BFD cause report and take action accordingly. It’s essential that they make such recommendations in a timely way as new housing projects with similar construction plans are constantly entering the review pipeline in Dorchester, Mattapan, and beyond.

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