Firewall Separation in Townhome

By
Home Inspector with Harmony Home Inspection Services of GA

I approach inspecting a townhome just like inspecting a single family residence.  I do not distinguish between what the HOA is responsible for versus what the home owner is responsible for.  The exterior will be inspected just like a single family home beginning with roof, flashing, walls, stoops, steps, decks, patios, driveways, railings, etc.  Afterall, whatever goes on on the outside, could affect the inside and could result in a safety concern for the client. 

In my reporting system, there is one additional item I comment on is that of "Firewall Separation in Attic and Garage"

The first picture below illustrates a portion of a townhome unit's firewall in an attic that is totally sealed off to provide 1 hour of fire protection on both sides.  For example, if there is a middle located townhome with adjacent units on either side, you will have 1 hour of fire separation at each side. 

For older units with parapet walls using masonry blocks known as concrete masonry units or "CMU's", they provide a total of 4 hours of fire rating.  You will see this on older complexes where there is a physical wall that extends on upwards (forming the parapet or "fortress") of approximately 3' above the roof line.  On newer construction where a gypsum product is installed instead of CMU's with parapets, the underside of the roof must also be covered with 5/8" gypsum that exends from wall out to a distance of 4'.

Many older complexes utilized 5/8" Type X gypsum on walls and either Type X gypsum or fire-retardant-treated "FRT" wood on underside of roof decking to provide fire separation.  While inspecting those townhomes, the firewall assembly is often incomplete or breaches have taken place.  Personnel who have accessed attic areas often knock out a portion of the wall or there are missing panels. (Pictures 2 & 3) Tape between seams are often missing or loose.  Penetrations of cables also produces a breach, allowing for faster spread of fire.  Proper separation buys valuable time and provides important protection.  In the metro Atlanta area, particularly in Dekalb County, it's common to hear of apartment fires that spread like wildfire because there was no firewall protection in place.

If you are in the market to rent an apartment or purchase a townhome or condo, hire a qualified home inspector to get up in the attic for you. It makes good sense to have it inspected for the purpose of safety and peace of mind, even if the property is sold "As Is" and appears to be a steal of a deal!

   Well executed fire separation complete with visible sticker:

Fire wall using Densglass Ultra

Holes knocked in firewall and missing panels in firewall:

Hole punched in firewallMissing panels in firewall

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Rainer
124,384
Hope Goss
Ventura Property Shoppe - Ventura, CA
Ventura Real Estate

I've seen this in quite a few inspections for my clients buying condos or townhomes.

Aug 17, 2008 09:34 AM #1
Rainer
85,159
Rich Mielke
REMAX Results, Frederick MD - Frederick, MD
REALTOR, Frederick Maryland Real Estate

Missing gypsum on the underside of the roofing has come up occasionally on some transactions. One townhouse had just had a new roof installed and the roofer apparently replaced a section of roof decking and had removed the gypsum and not replaced it.

Aug 17, 2008 09:38 AM #2
Rainmaker
52,122
Hank Spinnler
Harmony Home Inspection Services of GA - Hoschton, GA
Atlanta Home Inspector

In your experience, will the HOA address this or do they say something in reference to the Fire Marshall's position on it?

Aug 17, 2008 10:11 AM #3
Ambassador
1,087,061
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Hank, love the hole---makes it so much easier than going around:)  I will also add that many older buildings (and varying with the juirsdiction) might not have fire walls in the attic between units of apartment buildings.  Common Attics, common crawl spaces---the big thing to look for there is that every unit doesn't have access to the attic or crawl:)

Aug 17, 2008 10:13 AM #4
Rainmaker
52,122
Hank Spinnler
Harmony Home Inspection Services of GA - Hoschton, GA
Atlanta Home Inspector

Charles, Yes, that's a lovely hole now isn't it? LOL.  Thank you for adding a comment about the crawlspaces.  I recall a a few inspections (none in the last year or so) where the crawlspace was common for all units.  There was one flooded walk-in where I could have used a canoe to get around in.  Not a fun one to do.  :)

Aug 17, 2008 10:30 AM #5
Rainmaker
66,806
Kevin Corsa
H.I.S. Home Inspections (Summit, Stark Counties) - Canton, OH
H.I.S. Home Inspections, Stark & Summit County, OH Home Inspector

I think this is why they have made builders of multi-units here in Ohio go to block wall separations all the way to the roofline.

Aug 18, 2008 06:21 AM #6
Anonymous
Anonymous
Anonymous

Kevin - would that include parapets extending above the roofline?

Aug 18, 2008 07:15 AM #7
Anonymous
Anonymous
Jquates

Burgalars are traveling through the attic to condominiums in Saline Michigan.

Are the building owners required to install seperation and fire resistance for attached units by law or code?

Nov 15, 2008 05:27 PM #8
Anonymous
Anonymous
Hank Spinnler

Jquates.  Good information and yet another reason to write them up.  As a private inspector, I cannot enforce anyone to do anything.  For new construction, you could reference the code, present it to the builder and see what happens.  The homeowner could contact the local authority having jurisdicatio (AHJ) for interpretation if needed.  I've done it myself. 

In one inspection in one county, the fire marshall reportedly came out and okayed the lack of fire separation.  I never saw the letter and my young buyer never pushed to obtain proof.

Nov 16, 2008 07:34 AM #9
Anonymous
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Chris Rains

Hi my name is Chris and I live in a townhome that has four townhomes on my left, one on my right and we are all connected to each other. As I was going up to my attic to inspect my air conditioning vents one day I noticed that the firewalls dividing our townhomes giving us complete separation to each other, looked as if someone jig sawed  through the walls and made a whole on both sides just big enough so a tall person could fit through and the sheet rock that was on these fire walls is still there laying on the ground, and that makes me very concerned for the safety of my family. I work all day and my wife is at home all day taking care of our month old son. Is this a fire hazard and how  can I guarantee their safety and what should I do about this issue? Email me your opinions at chrislrains@yahoo.com  if you have an opinion about how I should solve this problem. Thanks Chris

Aug 23, 2009 12:29 AM #10
Anonymous
Anonymous
Bob Hornby

My building is a 20 Unit garden building built in approx. 1976 in the state of Florida. It has no firewalls installed in the attic crawl space. My question is are we really required to install these partitions or does a grandfather clause apply? Hope you can help me. Thx Bob H  

Oct 19, 2009 03:00 PM #11
Anonymous
Anonymous
Tammy

I live in an apt building in Fl that is several years old. I went up into the attic with my bf and discovered that there is a hole the size of two men that could allow access into my apt through my attic space!! What is the law and how do I research this prior to going to the management, as they do shoddy work and are not concerned with safety issues in the past??!

Jul 31, 2014 10:11 AM #12
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Rainmaker
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Hank Spinnler

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