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  • Carol Mckee

Burning Down the House - Part One

No, we are not talking about the Talking Head's song. Rather it's a step forward in our Passive House project. Sometimes on a project you are rehabbing what is there. Sometimes you’re taking it down. Sometimes you take it down in a way that also serves your community.

Demolition of a house doesn't always involve a bulldozer

Making Way for the Build

On the property where we’re going to be building this first Passive house project for QRS there was an 1100 square-foot smallish house built in the 1940s. We enjoy and play the sport of curling (and we can talk about that later) but some of our curling friends who have gotten to know this small house had referred to it as the sugar shack.

The Sugar Shack before picture

We are unable to reuse anything in the the sugar shack, since it was built a long time ago and was not well built nor well maintained. And thus we needed to take it off the property. Demo can be a fair amount of work and a fair amount of cost. Say an average of $6,000 to $12,000 to demo a house of reasonable size. We could’ve just done traditional demo, and spent maybe $8000.

The so called sugar shack had several structural issues which precluded saving any part of the house

Bulldozer Alternative

But in the back of my mind I actually had vague understanding that the fire department might be willing to burn it down for practice. This is especially important for a fire department that has both new professionals and/or volunteers on their roster. To be able to practice various house-on-fire scenarios without the pressure of controlling a real property and life threating fire is a gift that helps the whole community. Given that we are building in the small town of Matthews, North Carolina we wanted to offer the town fire department a chance to use the house for the better good.

So I reached out for the local fire department and worked with their training coordinator for almost 2 months. Because we were burning it down, we had to get an asbestos inspection and sampling done on the house to make sure that it was safe for both the firefighters to burn it down and for the residents who lived nearby.

Asbestos Testing

I knew that this house probably had asbestos in the siding, and it was almost a foregone conclusion when the inspector came out. But samples were taken from both inside and the outside of the structure and we submitted all of the testing to a lab to confirm. Yup.. the siding came back positive. But everything else in the house tested negative.

Asbestos remediation requires the right gear and proper disposal of what is removed

Remediation of this size takes a whole team of people

Because we own the property and I am doing the work myself, we could have just hired some temporary workers, taking the proper precautions and done the asbestos abatement ourselves. That would have been the easy and cheap way out. But the logistics involved, the time that it would take me away from other things that I’m working on, as well as the need to be on site and supervise all of this in a Tyvek suit and full face mask in the middle of summer in North Carolina all encouraged me to hire someone to do it.

We did just that and hired an asbestos abatement firm to come remove all the siding and dispose of it properly. Which is of course not inexpensive but is definitely the right thing to do and the most environmentally friendly option. Because it was a controlled burn, we had to meet National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) requirements in order to get the demolition permit from the country. It took the better part of those two months to get through the demo permit process.

After the asbestos siding was removed the house still had a structure that the fire department could use to do drills

Local Fire Department Training

Once we have the demo permit, we did the asbestos abatement, and got it inspected by both the country and the fire department and had the greenlight to go forward.

Rooms were numbered for the fire department's training exercises

The fire department and I worked together on the timing for their training and partial burns. These were scheduled for July 5th and 6th. Because many of the firemen doing the drills were volunteers they exercises were held mostly in the evening since they all have full time jobs. Rooms were numbered and different one or two room fires were lit and then put out. Some had a straightforward walk in the front door but some had the fireman having to walk past a burning fire which has a quite natural psychological aversion aspect to it.

The rooms in the house were used multiple times during the evenings of training. Even on the day of the full burn down the training exercises were done for the first several hours. This type of donation of a house for training is a very rare occurrence for any given fire department and they wanted to make the most of it.

Wood pallets and straw were used to start the fires for the practice of dealing with different scenarios

I walked through the house on July 7, the morning of the full burn down. When I went inside you could see where the fire department had a one room fire that burned through the roof in that spot, and another one room fire on the other side of the house.

You can see where one of the practice fires burned through the roof

They had also used a smoke a gun throughout the house. From my Disaster Restoration business owner days, it was a flashback to many houses that I’ve seen that have a little bit of fire damage and a lot of smoke damage.

The Big Burn

Finally the time came that we were going to burn it down. Now when I say burn it, I don’t mean that the house simply caught on fire but rather the whole idea was to burn it to the ground.

The firemen would meet outside before each exercise to discuss the plan and afterwards to debrief as well

Stay tuned next time for how things went on the full burn down. Sometimes it's the unexpected things that make or break any event. What unexpected things? You will see in part two of Burning Down the House!

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