Research in Progress – Building Safer Balconies

The scene is iconic, Juliet on her balcony calling out into the night, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”, and Romeo calling up from the garden below to his star-crossed love, desperation in his heart. It is a scene that is known nearly all around the world. To many, it is what gives balconies their romantic appeal.

Construction in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Home Innovation Research Labs)

What a different scene it would have been if Shakespeare was not only a writer but an engineer who understood the difficulties of balcony architecture and construction. Balconies would be viewed with less rosy lenses if Shakespeare, instead of giving Romeo “love’s light wings,” gave him a balcony with moisture-driven rot and the moment he began to climb towards Juliet, the structure unmoored and flattened him under piles of destabilized building materials.

Although it may be lighthearted to imagine Romeo in a different balcony scenario, between 2001 and 2016 there have been approximately 239 balcony and deck collapses in the United States alone. In just two high-profile balcony collapses in Berkeley, CA and Chicago, IL, a total of nineteen fatalities resulted. As buildings age, construction defects become fatal defects.

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Holiday Trees: Go Real, but Water them Well!

Being the tree lovers that we are here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), of course we’re going to recommend real trees for the holiday season.

TREEThe benefits are numerous. While they’re growing, real trees clean the air and provide us with fresh oxygen to breathe. Most Christmas trees are grown on farms (often on soil that doesn’t support other crops), so buying a real tree supports local farm families who plant new seedlings for every tree harvested. And when the new year rolls around, your real tree can be recycled for a new purpose — perhaps as mulch, or something more exciting, like being submerged in a lake to create a fish habitat!

Yet even as we encourage the use of real trees this holiday season, we must remind you to be safe! Christmas tree fires are rare, and well-watered trees pose very little risk. But when real trees are neglected and dry out, they can be consumed by fire in a matter of seconds if a flame or electrical spark gets too close!

Watch this video from the National Instituted of Science and Technology for Christmas tree safety tips and a sobering look at how quickly your holiday could go up in flames.

Temperature Down, Danger Up : Wood Heating Caveats From FPL

Most residential buildings in the United States employ wood as a primary construction material, and increasingly, commercial buildings are following suit. Although researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) have spent the better part of a century formulating new treatments and methods for improving the fire durability of wood, fire safety remains a serious consideration, particularly during the winter.

Fire retardant test at FPL, 1940s.

A fire retardant test at FPL during the 1940s. FPL research has helped improve building codes, wood treatments, and testing standards.

This danger can be compounded depending on your method of heating. As the temperature goes down, if you choose to heat your home with wood, fire danger goes up. Proper precautions should be taken to ensure that the fire stays contained in the stove or fireplace, lest it spread to the surrounding structure.

According to The Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material, one of the most important problems associated with home fires is the smoke produced. The term smoke is frequently used in an all-inclusive sense to mean the mixture of pyrolysis products and air that is near the fire site. In this context, smoke contains gasses, solid particles, and droplets of liquid — but why is smoke so dangerous?

Smoke presents a potential hazard because it interacts with light to obscure vision, but the toxicity of combustion products is the primary concern. Fire victims are often not touched by flames but die a s a result of exposure to smoke, toxic gasses, or oxygen depletion. These life-threatening conditions can result from burning contents, such as furnishings as well as from structural materials involved.

The toxicity resulting from the thermal decomposition of wood and cellulosic substances is complex because of the wide variety of types of wood smoke. Composition and the concentration of individual constituents depend on such factors as the fire exposure, oxygen and moisture present, species of wood, any treatment of finishes that may have been applied, and other considerations.

The vast majority of fires that attain flashover (a fire’s sudden spread when an area is heated to its flashpoint) do generate dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, independent of what is burning. Carbon monoxide is a particularly insidious toxic gas and is generated in significant amounts in wood fires.

Even small amounts of carbon monoxide can be toxic because the hemoglobin in the blood is much more likely to combine with carbon monoxide than with oxygen, even with plenty of breathable oxygen present. Generally, two approaches are used to help deal with the smoke problem: limit smoke production and control the smoke that has been produced. The control of smoke flow is most often a factor in the design and construction of buildings.


Wall test conducted in the large vertical furnace at FPL showing a wall panel at the point of fire burn through. Information of this nature is used in building designs to help ensure time for people to exit a burning structure and help contain the fire and smoke.

Draftstops are one useful control measure construction engineers implement. Draftstops are barriers intended to restrict the movement of air within concealed areas of a building. The are typically used to restrict horizontal dispersion of hot gases and smoke in larger concealed spaces such as those found within wood joist floor assemblies with suspended dropped ceilings or within an attic space with pitched chord trusses.

Doors can also be critical in preventing the spread of smoke and fire, even if they are made out of wood. Doors left open or doors with little fire resistance can easily defeat the purpose of a properly fire-rated wall or partition. Listings of fire-rated doors, frames and accessories are provided by various fire testing agencies. When a fire-rated door is selected, details about what which type of door, mounting, hardware, and closing mechanism must be considered.

Finally, keep in mind that smoke rises, and that when evacuating a burning building, clean air can usually be found closer to the ground. For more information on home fires, and tips to keep you and your family safe, visit

For more information about the fire resistance of wood, please see Chapter 18 of The Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material.





Be Good to Your Christmas Tree And it will be good to you ...


Each year over 30 million Christmas trees will be sold in the U.S. Mother Nature’s kind. The real, beautiful, ever-green, ever-aromatic centerpiece of our holiday season. They will dress up our houses and maybe most important, will be the landing point for all manner of goodies when Santa pays his annual visit — assuming, of course, we were good this year.

Which is why it is vitally important to take good care of your tree, because a tree that goes unloved and uncared for can be deadly. We don’t want to throw water on the celebration, but facts are facts. Actually, maybe we do want to throw water on the celebration, or at least at the tree.

Simply keeping your tree properly watered significantly decreases the chances of a catastrophic fire in your home. Not convinced? Take a few seconds to watch this eye-opening video courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association. Wow.

While you’re at it, try to spend a few more minutes looking through these excellent basic tips for proper tree care brought to you by Purdue University.

If you don’t have a few minutes the easy-to-follow instructions below could mean the difference between a joyous holiday season and a really, really bad one.

  • Find a tree with pliable needles that stay on the branches.
  • Cut 1/2 inch from the end of the trunk, and use a tree stand that can hold plenty of cool water.
  • Water often. Be sure to keep the water level above the tree base, otherwise the end of the tree will seal, preventing additional water from entering the tree.
  • Keep the tree at least 3 feet away from any heat source and don’t let it block any exits.
  • And it goes without saying that candles should never be used on or near the tree.

And stop by our website for more information about past and present fire safety research at FPL.

Be safe and enjoy your tree!

In Service to Safety at FPL

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Safety is no accident.

At the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), Tom Jacobson is a big part of the “safety” culture. One of the biggest positive changes Jacobson has seen in his 25 years on the job as Occupational Safety & Health manager at FPL is a shift in the mindset of safety itself.

Tom J pic

Tom Jacobson, Occupational Safety & Health manager at FPL

“Safety is no longer seen as something in addition to a job at FPL,” Jacobson says, “it’s become part of the job.”

Whether driving a forklift, testing a new composite product, or taking a huge glulam wood beam to failure, the shift to a preventative safety mindset is a welcome one. Facilitating a stronger safety culture across all tiers and tasks has been a strategic goal in recent years for the Forest Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When Jacobson started at FPL, in 1987, a “culture of safety” did not exist then as it does now, he says. The onus for maintaining FPL’s strong safety record, Jacobson points out, has come to rest mostly on the shoulders of individual unit supervisors. Though Jacobson has the flexibility to address safety issues across the board at FPL, the project leaders, he says, assume most of the direct responsibility of training new hires and making sure veteran employees remain safety-conscious rather than becoming complacent.

Employees in the seven research stations of Forest Service Research & Development face many distinctly different safety concerns compared to most Forest Service units who serve on the forest. In R&D – where we trade in chemicals, flasks, and lab-wear rather than wildfires, pulaskis, and chainsaw chaps – safety consciousness can take on a different orientation. The essential elements of safety remain the same, however, says Jacobson: “If someone is doing their job well, they are doing it safely.”