Earlier this week, I thought my apartment building was on fire.

On Monday afternoon while working in my bedroom, I got a strong whiff of burning plastic. It was unmistakable. There’s been a lot Engine Company 202/Ladder 101 action in my neighborhood as of late — a kitchen fire in the coffee shop across the street, a downed power line right outside my building, an entire two blocks blocked off on an oppressively hot afternoon by the FDNY for unknown reasons. All of the sirens and flashing lights, coupled with the record-breaking heat that has gripped much of much of the country over the last couple of weeks, has had me on edge. And then there was the devastating derecho that swept through the Mid-Atlantic last Friday night. Also, a huge swath of the country — not just Colorado — is currently on fire.

So when the stench of burning plastic entered my nostrils earlier this week, I immediately jumped from my bed desk to investigate. The acrid odor was stronger in my living room than in my bedroom and I let my nose guide me to an open window facing the Brooklyn waterfront. Governors Island — situated directly across from my apartment building, separated only by a few warehouses and the Buttermilk Channel — was on fire. Well, part of Governors Island was on fire; huge billows of smoke rose from the southwestern section of the island, home to an abandoned U.S. Coast Guard housing complex (well, not home for too much longer).

A quick Google search led me to the source of the fire: over 200 members of the FDNY, along with researchers from the Researchers from Underwriters Laboratories and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, were on the Governors Island purposely — and methodically — setting fire to 1980s-era brick row houses in a closed-off/soon to be demolished section of the uninhabited 172-acre island called Brick Village. The structures were all stuffed to the gills with modern home furnishings procured from hotel liquidators.

The reason behind the (controlled) torch-fest that would have sent Beavis into a pyro-induced frenzy?

To study the behavior of residential fires in homes containing furniture made from and filled with plastic and other synthetic materials. Once upon a time, when a majority of furniture was made from wood and cushions were filled with, gasp, natural materials like cotton and wool, house fires burned slower and in a more predictable manner. Firefighters knew how to extinguish them — ventilating the structure by breaking windows or cutting holes through the roof was often the first line of defense before dousing the flames with water. Now that plastic has replaced natural materials in many homes, house fires tend to spread more quickly and are more difficult to extinguish using traditional methods. In turn, the FDNY has been forced to rethink its longstanding approach to battling blazes.

Explains the NY Times:

With more plastic in homes, residential fires are now likely to use up all the oxygen in a room before they consume all flammable materials. The resulting smoky, oxygen-deprived fires appear to be going out. But they are actually waiting for an inrush of fresh air, which can come as firefighters cut through roofs and break windows.

“Years ago you could break a window and it took the fire several minutes to develop — or tens of minutes,” a fire battalion chief in Queens, George K. Healy, tells the Times. “Now we’re learning when you vent that window or the door, the fire is developing in, say, a minute with the available oxygen.”

Adds Stephen Kerber, a research engineer with Underwriter Laboratories: “Everyone assumed that when you ventilate, things cool off, that venting equals cooling. We’re proving time and time again that venting doesn’t cool and allows for things to get much hotter.”

In addition to experimenting with ventilation, the FDNY and researchers will be conducting other tests on Governors Island over the next two weeks during the "live burn" experiment including how to best approach fires in basements. Traditionally, firefighters enter the house and descend to the basement via the stairs in a method believed to protect the home’s inhabitants who may still be trapped elsewhere within the home. The testing on Governors Island will see how effective dousing flames from outside a home, through basement windows, is compared to the standard “aggressive interior firefighting” technique which, of course, places top priority on saving lives.

The FDNY's official Flickr page has several great shots from day one of the live burn experiments.

In addition to being incredibly helpful to the FDNY and researchers, the experiments on Governors Island provide insight into the distinctly modern day dilemma of owning furniture — the fuel in a house fire — composed entirely of or containing large amounts of petroleum-based materials. Of course, we all want to own beautiful things (hand)made exclusively from natural materials, but the fact of the matter is that home furnishings made from synthetic materials are cheaper and more plentiful.

Says New York City fire commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano: “We’re an organization steeped in tradition and we’ve been fighting fires for many years in certain ways and they worked. But we owe it to everybody who works for us and the people we serve to look at the way we fight fires.”

Earlier today, the same aroma of burning plastic originating from a controlled house fire on Governors Island wafted across the Buttermilk Channel and through my living room window. This time around, however, I felt reassured instead of panicked.

Via [NY Times]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

FDNY ignites fires to help save lives on Governors Island
Vacant homes on Governors Island are filled with modern furniture and then set ablaze in a series of experiments geared to help firefighters better understand t