Sandy Springs is waiting on state approval to change its ordinance for buildings.
The city wants to require developers to use metal or masonry framing on any new buildings taller than three stories or more than 100,000 square feet.
Sandy Springs Fire Rescue Chief Keith Sanders said cheaper wood framing used in most apartment complexes these days is more flammable.
“The concern is, nationally, the fact that lightweight wood-frame construction is very dangerous to the firefighters when a fire ignites,” Sanders said. “They use engineered wood that has glue in it, really thin layers of metal that holds the structure together, especially your floor systems.”
He said the new complexes do have one-hour sheetrock firewalls and sprinkler systems, but said the nature of fires inside apartment units has changed.
“Fire has changed since the 1950s and ’60s when you had furniture and household items that burned a lot slower than what they do today,” Sanders said. “When that fire leaves that room of origin or gets into a wall that doesn’t have fire-resistant wood or a sprinkler system, the fire quickly travels and always ends up into the attic, and it burns the roof structure completely off the building.”
Sanders said he’s seen many apartments under construction get burned down in other states.
“We can build buildings using fire-resistant materials that have a fire-retardant sprayed over it,” Sanders said. “We need to be proactive in the way we are building our communities.”
But Jason Shepard, CEO of the architecture firm Dwell Design Studio in Alpharetta, predicts the move will price some home builders out of Sandy Springs.
“These are not cheap apartments. These are well-built, extremely high-end, class-A apartments being developed across Sandy Springs right now,” Shepard said. “I think it’s a transportation play. I think the city’s just trying to get control of their transportation, which is out of control. And this is just one way for them to slow down development in the market.”
Shepard’s firm designed two large projects in Sandy Springs that will have wood framing. He said one of those projects is delayed because construction costs are so high.
“As rents have gone up, costs have gone up on apartments,” Shepard said. “As costs go up, developers have to weigh whether or not they can get enough rent in order to pay for what they can build. You can’t get the rent structure in Sandy Springs to afford concrete construction.”
He said currently, wood-frame construction costs about $160 per square foot. He said concrete frames can cost developers about $215 to $240 per square foot.
“There’s this massive gap between the cost of a quality wood-frame structure and the cost of doing a cheap or cost-effective steel or concrete structure,” Shepard said. “You can’t build something nice if you can’t get enough rent back in order to help pay for it. Nobody’s going to do that. It’s just not a smart investment.”
‘Not Going To Promote Affordable Housing’
He said the proposed change would mean developers would have to charge residents higher rent at these units.
“This is not going to promote affordable housing in Sandy Springs at all,” Shepard said. “It’s only going to probably double the cost of housing in the rental market in Sandy Springs, and it’s really going to push out the poor that can’t afford to live in Sandy Springs because there’s going to be no new affordable housing with them making this decision.”
Even if the state approves the change, Sandy Springs City Council members will still have to make the final decision to amend the city ordinance on Sept. 6.
Shepard said he’s helped design more than 60,000 multi-family units across the country in the past 18 years and not one has caught fire.
“Anything can catch on fire. The systems are built in order to protect the residents inside,” Shepard said. “It’s silly. It’s like a scare tactic, I think, that they’re trying to get people to buy off on the concept.”
Shepard said steel frames are more resistant to fire, but new apartments have other fire safety features like sprinklers and insulation systems that old buildings lack.