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ETpro's avatar

Why do we still build and furnish homes with highly flammable materials?

Asked by ETpro (34594points) February 20th, 2012

Here in the Boston area, we have had a recent string of home, condo and apartment fires and numerous people have been injured or killed. We live in an age where we can put a humans on the moon and bring them back safely with moon rocks as souvenirs. We can build a super computer the likes of Watson that can actually win at Jeopardy. Scientists just succeeded in building the first single atom transistor which may lead to true quantum computers small enough to enable smart nanobot development.

Yet we still build using materials that will go up in flames if we have an electrical short, leave a pot cooking on the stove, or drop off to sleep while smoking on the couch. Even after a home burns up, we rebuild it with the same flammable materials that just failed. Why don’t we apply our technology toward building fireproof houses?

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9 Answers

Lightlyseared's avatar

Because the materials we make our homes out of have other characteristics that are valued just as highly as being flameproof. For example most fire doors are still made from wood despite the fact that wood burns. However wood fire doors have several advantages over metal fire doors. We’ve been using wood for years and we know exactly how it behaves in a whole range of circumstance. Wood is an excellent insulator so even if the room on one side of the door is at 1000 degrees the other side of the door will be safe to touch, wood doesn’t expand when it gets hot so the door will stay the same shape and not buckle potentially allowing fire past it.

Secondly using exotic fire proof materials would subtantially increase the price of your home and who can afford that.

And thirdly it probably wouldn’t make any difference any way most fires in the home are caused by the human occupants being idiots. The building may be tottaly fire proof but that won’t stop the person living there filling it with flamable stuff, lighting a cigarette and falling asleep.

jca's avatar

I recently saw a documentary on killer whales. They said they tested marine animals to see what is in the food that they eat, and they found chemicals from flame retardants, the kind that are put in couches and things like that. I am guessing that the chemicals that make things flame retardant are not good for us to live with, and as the documentary stated, make it into the water supplies. Now that we often aspire to live a more green, clean lifestyle, a lot of consumers would not want to have things soaked in more chemicals than they already are, if they could avoid it.

PhiNotPi's avatar

Our modern homes are filled with man-made plastic/nylon/polyester products that are actually much more flammable than wood. Wood is actually a very slow burning material compared to many materials that we put inside of the house. I am pretty sure that a dropped cigarette wouldn’t light wood on fire, especially sealed/treated wood. But it could easily set polyester and other oil based products on fire. Most of the fire threat isn’t from the house itself, but whatever you put inside the house that acts as a fire propellant.

JLeslie's avatar

Some materials we treat to slow how quickly it will burn. However, fire retardent doesn’t feel as good on many fabrics. Ever touch baby clothing? Their all cotton onesies are nice and soft, and their fire resistant pajamas not so much. Many parents choose not to put their babies in the fire resistant sleepwear. There are more houses builts with CBS as opposed to wood now. You see it a lot in south Florida.

Polyster is big now in furniture, as mentioned by someone above, and it is incredibly flammable, much worse than natural fibers. Even carpets are now synthetic, when back in the day they were natural. In some ways some things make a house go up in flames faster, especially less expensive items in furnishings. But, our wiring, stoves, and other possible causes of fires are much safer generally.

I think cost is one of the biggest factors, and then just hoping to some extent the emergency won’t happen. In FL we have very strict codes for high winds, but not here in TN, but TN does get some windstorms.

As a side note, always wear natural fibers when flying if you are worried about the off chance of fire. Especially women tend to wear polyesters and nylons, and if an emergency happens, and fire starts, the clothing will melt to your skin and catch fire.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Like @Lightlyseared, I don’t know that it would matter (unless your entire home was constructed of metal & concrete), what you made the home from.

Most fires are completely preventable.

Lately, my village has had several home fires…one of them was deadly. One was a wood burning stove fire, next a warm heat gun (oily rags were next to the gun) in the basement, another was a lightning fire (struck near the chimney, set the roof ablaze), another was started in the garage (stored flammables made it worse), deadly fire (cause still unknown, but started in the sunporch or the garage)...So of these very recent fires, only one was caused by an act of nature.

ETpro's avatar

By the way, later in the day we had a second large fire later in the day in a multi-unit building.

@Lightlyseared That list just reads to me like a technology challenge. I am sure each objectin to fireproofing is answerable. I understand that kitchen fires are the number one cause of house fires. Those are almost entirely human error. But even so, they could be avoided. Designing as if Murphy’s Law doesn’t exist is lousy, stupid design. Blaming the humans who stupidly misuse a stupid design does not relieve the engineers of responsibility for failing to take user behavior into account.

@jca That’s true. Many of the fire retardants we currently use are toxic. The smoke from such articles in a fire adds to the likelihood of death from smoke inhalation, which is generally the cause of fire-related deaths in home fires. Then there is the issue you mention of the toxins getting into the environment and the food chain, which we eventually eat—being the alpha predator on Earth. I mean, humans hunt and eat killer whales. Again, we aren’t bening smart about our use of technology. We put profits ahead of people and a sustainable life.

@PhiNotPi Any fix would absolutely have to extend to home furnishings as well as basic construction.

@JLeslie Good point. One more item for science to figure out. How to make fireproof and non-toxic silk and cotton.

@SpatzieLover Electrical fires rank high on the list of home fire causes, as do fireplaces and improperly installed or maintained heating equipment. Gas leaks are up there, too. Most lightning strike fires could be prevented by simply installing lightning arrestors on the roof. Not all, but most. Having non flammable materials for roofing and framing would cure that particular problem completely.

Ron_C's avatar

I went through this exercise as an officer in the 1ST Class mess on one of the ships where I was stationed. The navy insisted that as much flammable material be removed from the ship as possible. We had really great round oak tables with matching chairs. Natural wood paneling and a generally nice decor as a place to eat and relax at the end of the day.

We had to have it all torn out. The paneling was replaced with metal covered with a simulated wood grain. The wooden furniture was replaced with round aluminum and steel tables and chairs with metal frames and plastic seats (I complained that the plastic was more flammable than our original wooden chairs, but to no avail).

Our mess went from looking like an upscale English pub to an early McDonald’s decor.

That is the trouble with non-flammable furnishings, they are institutional looking and not attractive or comfortable. Besides I have lived in a house for about 40 years and the only fire came from a gas clothes dryer. That was because of poor maintenance on my part. I, personally, would not want government mandated safety rules determining how my home is furnished. The risk I take is between me and my insurance company, not the government and I want to keep it that way.

ETpro's avatar

@Ron_C Again, those are technological challenges to solve. It doesn’t have to be that way.

kritiper's avatar

Cost. It’s not cost effective to build expensive homes and everyone knows cost savings is more important than human lives.

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