New Houses Are 8x More Flammable Than Many Old Ones

February 25th 2015

Alicia Lutes

You know, they just don't make 'em like they used to — and this time, in reference to houses, that old adage is particularly accurate, because new cost-cutting measures in wood production have actually made houses way more flammable and therefore, far less safe. Oh jeez!

This one's for all you prodigious Millennials out there that are somehow able to afford to buy a home (and here we thought we were going to be a generation of renters), particularly the newer constructions being propped up across the country. As it turns out, you might want to inquire with your contractor as to the sort of wood product they're using to craft the home, as a new study has revealed that OSB beams burn 800 percent — a.k.a. eight times faster — than solid wood beams. Um, that's quite a big difference!

Oriented strand board (OSB), as it is so called, is a wood-ish substance: it is made out of discarded wood strands, compressed and glued together to create a solid sheet of sorta-wood. And because of that, OSB and plywood are significantly cheaper than regular wood, in turn becoming two of the most common wood substitutes used in new constructions. On average, OSB costs $3 less per sheet than even plywood, the previous go-to wood substitute product.

According to a study from Underwriters laboratories (UL), an independent testing company, fire research "has shown that engineered products, though perform admirably in normal conditions, exhibit degraded fire performance vis-à-vis traditional solid lumber sections when unprotected." They compared both engineered wood and traditional lumber beams and the study was conclusive: "a single traditional lumber rectangular section beam (or a flooring system supported by such beams) performs considerably better than a similarly loaded single engineered wood I-beam." 

Down in Jacksonville, Florida, the fire department put these claims to the test and found they were true: After 3½ minutes, the OSB beam collapsed whereas the solid piece of lumber was charred but still intact. But why? Apparently you can thank the wood shreds. Because compressed shreds of wood have no set pattern and are only held together by glue, they burn out fast, with the glue melting and in turn disconnecting the top part of the board from the bottom, creating a "burn-out web" within the wood itself. Which is to say: this wood burns fast and erratically.

"By the time [a family] wakes up and they call us and we get on scene, 4 to 6 minutes [have] passed; this failed in less than that time," explained Lt. Tracey Davis to from Jacksonville, Florida, who took part in the test.

So maybe the real message here is simple: what's old is new again! Buy a vintage/pre-owned/fixer-upper house and restore it — it might mean a safe night's sleep for you and your family.