CORNWALL – Cornwall has seen two fires in the last two months where people were trapped in upstairs apartments with only one exit.
In one case, a man died in April in a Sixth Street blaze in an apartment accessed by a covered stairwell. A fire last week forced two women and a child to escape through a window after flames engulfed the staircase of their Larin Avenue apartment.
The situation has raised questions about whether the setup is legal.
In a sit-down interview with Cornwall Newswatch, Chief Building Official Christopher Rogers says the single exit is legal and has been that way for a number of years.
“To the average person, and even myself sometimes, I think – oh! – only one exit. If you were building today for a building like that (a duplex) you’d only need one exit,” Rogers said.
He says the only reason you would have two exits would be where all the doors to a multiplex apartment building exit into a common corridor with one stairwell. “That is permitted as long as you have a separate means of exit,” Rogers said, such as a second stairwell.
The outside staircase to an upstairs apartment in a common setup in the old section of the City of Cornwall, such a Carleton, Guy and Alice Streets.
The chief building official says the rules surrounding exits haven’t changed much since the first Ontario Building Code (OBC) was printed in 1975. The section surrounding single exits covers all buildings less than 6,460 square feet and three or fewer storeys. The OBC mirrors the Canadian standard (the National Building Code).
Even if the laws were to change, the Ontario Building Code is not a retroactive document. “As long as it satisfied the standards of the period, it is fine,” Rogers said. In extreme situations, the Ontario Fire Code would kick in as it is a maintenance code enforced by the fire department.
Public criticism misdirected; New fire alarm rules for builders
According to Rogers, public criticism about building rules and regulations are often misdirected. The City of Cornwall is the front-line enforcer for the rules set by the Ontario government.
“Unfortunately, the Ontario Building Code is the absolute minimum construction standards and minimum life safety standards – not premium by any means. The province recognizes that. What they’re doing is awareness and prevention,” Rogers explains.
While larger centers, such as the GTA, would see so-called cookie-cutter houses built to these standards, Rogers believes builders in Cornwall go above the code and buyers of new homes are getting value for their dollar.
“Home purchasers of new construction are somewhat spoiled in Cornwall because they buy home, which in comparison to larger cities, are almost built to custom standards. In some cases they are custom quality. The double-win is that the fact you’re getting a premium quality construction home at a very low price,” Rogers told Cornwall Newswatch.
In the new OBC, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2014, builders now have to put smoke alarms in every bedroom. Before it used to be a smoke alarm outside the bedroom area.
Smoke alarms in new construction also have to have a visual alarm, such as a strobe, to alert those that are deaf or hearing impaired.
Taking a side on siding
After the province’s push on public safety, the municipality can choose from the hundreds of regulations on what it makes as an enforcement priority for safety – in the case of Cornwall it’s siding.
Rogers says many municipalities don’t need a permit for replacing siding but Cornwall does.
“We take a fair amount of criticism for it. We insist on it because the buildings are very close in many cases (especially the east end). They were built to some unknown standard way back when, so they are what they are.”
He says vinyl siding is not allowed within a close proximity to the property line, due to its flammability and the toxic nature of vinyl siding when it burns. With that in mind, in many cases, foam-based insulation is not allowed either.
“Sometimes the Ontario Building Code says, depending on distance to property line, depending on the use of the building, no, you cannot use vinyl or any combustible construction. You have to go to metal. We get a lot of push back because metal is a lot more expensive,” he said.
“We enforce that (part of the code) quite rigidly in Cornwall – period.”