The Shocking Truth About Modern Homes and Fire Safety

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: August 29, 2023

The smoke alarms are strategically positioned. You test them regularly, and you change their batteries on schedule. You practice evacuation plans several times a year, and you’ve established smart fire prevention habits.

You go to bed each night knowing that you’ve done your best to keep your home safe from the trauma of a sudden disaster and fire damage cleanup. You don’t realize that your house is a source of significant fire-related danger.

The truth is that your home’s furnishings, design and construction all contribute to levels of fire risk that have significantly increased over the past 30 years.

Synthetics Drastically Decrease Escape Time

‘Why would a modern residence be more likely to suffer a catastrophic fire today than a home from the ‘70s or ‘80s? According to research by Underwriters Laboratories in Chicago, the synthetic materials used in manufacturing contemporary home furnishings are a big part of the problem.

Older furniture was commonly constructed from solid wood. Cushions were stuffed with cotton padding and covered with natural fabrics. During the 1970s, inexpensive furnishings made from synthetic materials became popular. Wood frames and trims were crafted from composites, and polyurethane foam replaced traditional paddings.

UL testing demonstrates the difference in burn time between old and modern furniture with striking results. A house fire 30 years ago would give you about 17 minutes to evacuate. Today, your escape time is reduced to no more than three or four minutes.

Open Spaces Spread Flames

If you live in a modern home, you probably enjoy the expanse of an open floor plan. Today’s interior layouts often incorporate unobstructed design that blends kitchens, dining areas and living rooms. It’s not unusual for contemporary floor plans to only enclose bedrooms and bathrooms.

An open layout has aesthetic and practical appeal, but it makes a home more vulnerable to fire damage. Walls help contain the spread of flames while open spaces provide huge volumes of air that fuel a fire.

Fires burn very efficiently in atmospheres that contain as little as 16 percent oxygen. The open floor plan in a contemporary home provides plenty of space and air fuel for a small flame to quickly spread out of control.

Thermal Windows Intensify Flashovers

The energy crisis of the ‘70s produced new technologies designed to control home heating and cooling costs. Since then, energy-efficient windows have become standard installations in most modern residential construction. However, they play a surprising role in house fires.

During a fire, these windows seal air inside the home as flames spread through rooms and consume oxygen. However, extreme temperatures quickly melt their vinyl sashes and frames. The window glass breaks, and outside air rushes into the house causing dangerous flashover effects.

The reflective qualities of thermal windows can also contribute to the risk of house fires. There have been documented reports of energy-efficient windows reflecting sunlight onto other homes with enough intensity to melt vinyl siding and set cedar shingles on fire.

Construction Materials Increase Danger

Since the late 1980s, lightweight home construction has become a popular building technique because it uses materials that are inexpensive, durable and easy to work with. Plywood and oriented strand board (OSB) are both commonly used in this type of construction for siding, roofing and flooring.

The composition of OSB raises serious concerns about the role it plays in house fires. During the manufacturing process, its wooden strands are compressed with formaldehyde-based resins and wax to give it strength, but those materials make the product very flammable.

Because OSB burns so quickly, its flames can destabilize a residential structure in just a few minutes. The material is considered a highly contributing factor to the increased danger posed by home fires over the last 30 years.

Review, Confirm and Verify Your Plans

Now that you understand how different factors affect critical evacuation time during a house fire, renew your pledge to always practice the best home fire safety strategies.

Review your evacuation plans on a regular basis by double-checking the details. Make sure that designated routes from each room are still clear, and confirm that windows and doors serving as backup exits are easy to open.

From checking fire extinguishers to verifying first responder contact information, the time you put into reviewing emergency plans will pay off in critical minutes saved if you ever have to respond to an emergency at home.

We’re Here for You 24/7

tech in kitchen client

As Chicago’s leading fire restoration company, we see the aftermath of house fires every day. While we know that you can’t change your home’s construction, you can make informed decisions about its furnishings and interiors.

It’s our hope that the information we provide here is helpful. Please feel free to share your thoughts and concerns about home fire safety with our online community through our Comments Section.

If you should ever need professional fire damage restoration services in Chicago, ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba stands ready to answer your call. Our teams are always here for you 24/7.