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Why are so many old buildings made of brick, stone, or other noncombustible materials?

Why are so many old buildings made of brick, stone, or other noncombustible materials?


Have you ever wondered why so
many old buildings dating back to the early 20th or
late 19th centuries are predominantly made
of brick or stone? This is especially
true in cities. Take any one of these buildings,
like a historic courthouse or industrial
building that lines the streets of
some American city, and I’ll bet you
at the very least that it’s not made of wood. That wasn’t always
the case, though. And the reason for the
change from wooden structures to brick, stone,
metal, or clay– in US cities but also in
cities around the world– was fire. Welcome to Learn Something
New by NFPA Journal. [UPBEAT MUSIC] For as long as humans have
been around to build cities, fire has been there
to destroy them. In the year 64
AD, a massive fire erased over 70% of ancient Rome. In 1666, the Great
Fire of London destroyed the
homes of almost 90% of the entire city’s population. With each urban
conflagration, changes were often made to help
prevent future tragedies. In the United States,
while a number of blazes led to changes, perhaps
the most significant was the Great
Chicago Fire of 1871. It’s been debated
what caused the blaze. One enduring theory– which I
personally favor for its sheer absurdity– is that a local farmer’s
cow kicked over a lantern as it was being milked. Whatever the cause, the results
of the Great Chicago Fire were devastating. Strong winds fueled
the flames, which effortlessly leapt from
dry wooden building to dry wooden building. At the time, even
the city’s sidewalks were made of wood,
creating another catalyst for fire spread. In the end 17,500 buildings
were lost, and 300 people died. The fire’s footprint
spanned four miles long by one mile wide. In the immediate
wake of the fire, Chicago passed laws
requiring new buildings in certain parts of the city
be constructed with fireproof materials like bricks or stone. In other words, no more wood. In the years following
the Chicago fire, similar measures
began showing up in sets of national
recommendations on construction methods
and fire safety. In 1873, for example, the
National Association of Fire Engineers– which would later
become the International Association of Fire Chiefs– published a list of fire
protection concerns, which included the use
of combustible materials in construction. This switch from
primarily wooden buildings to brick, stone, or steel
in cities across the country did work to prevent these
massive urban fires. In fact, it worked in
Chicago just three years after the Great Fire
when another blaze swept across the city. “The fire stopped burning when
it hit the newly built stone buildings in the business
area,” author Richard Bales said in a 2002 book he wrote
on the Great Chicago Fire, “Assume that there is
no Chicago fire of 1871, then it is possible that
the 1874 fire would have burned even more properties.” Interestingly,
today we’re seeing a push towards more
wood construction for large buildings like
apartment complexes. While proponents
of the practice say today’s wood is engineered
to be less of a fire hazard than traditional
wood, others fear we’re just yet again introducing
the possibility of fires to burn out of control. Thanks for watching and be sure
to subscribe to NFPA’s YouTube channel for more
great video content. [MELLOW MUSIC]

Comments (3)

  1. Great job! I love these history lessons!

  2. Fire Insurance Maps started around 1866 the Sanborn Maps, before the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, so were aware of the danger and seems more about cost to build and accessibility to materials.

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