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SAN JOSE (CBS SF) – A gas-fueled fire in San Jose Monday moved quickly through three homes has highlighted the design risks of certain types of homes, including the Eichler-style structures popular in much of the Bay Area.
“These are the kind nicknamed 4- or 5-minute houses. If you don’t start putting them out then, it’s not even worth it. They’re all paneling and they’re glass houses,” said Steve Cohen, who lives across the street from the Eichler homes that burned Monday.
Thousands of homes featuring the Eichler design were constructed in a number of Bay Area communities including Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and San Rafael between the 1950’s and 1970’s. The homes were and still are popular for their distinctive mid-century modern style which features clean lines, glass walls, enclosed atrium and open beamed ceilings.
“Because it is so open it allows for more air to flow through, which…helps with the fuel,” said San Jose Fire Captain Cleo Doss.
Many of the original Eichlers also featured wood paneled walls, which is now prohibited in the building code of many municipalities due to fire danger.
Aside from the Eichler style, Victorian-era homes and those which feature trussed beams commonly found in newly-built homes are also highly susceptible to fire.
“In my mind, the more famous style [for fire risk] is Victorian,” said Berkeley firefighter Mike Stefanac. “Construction at the turn of the century, they didn’t have fire stops…there is a clear path for the fire to go up and around.”
Stefanac said that modern properties are built with barriers in the wall and fewer avenues such as dumbwaiter shafts that make possible for fire to jump from one level to another.
“In today’s construction every inch of a home is livable. In old construction they would have void spaces,” said Stefanac, which would allow flames to crawl freely through the home.
Though building codes have largely eliminated those void spaces, the are still serious fire risks built into modern structures.
Stefanac said a common fire risk in modern homes is collapse of attic structures using metal gusset plates to attach the timbers. Here is a firefighter training video illustrating how quickly a fire can take out the connectors to the framing of a roof that is attached with the lightweight materials:
The lighweight roof systems are cheap, otherwise durable and extremely common in large modern developments.