Several TV news programs yesterday ran video clips and stories about a test conducted to determine how resistant to fire a three-story wood-construction school building would be. The test building, costing 300 million yen and incorporating the latest safety features in its construction, was designed to simulate the sort of school that some educators, architects, and government officials have been recommending building if the current ban on three-story wooden schools were to be lifted.
Reasons given in most of the half-dozen news stories I saw for going back to wood construction from the current fero-concrete structures included reducing students' stress and instilling in them appreciation of nature and the ecology. My second suspicion was that the schools contemplating wood construction are looking at reduced building costs more than at students' spiritual welfare. One story, however, confirmed my initial cynical suspicion: the Forestry Agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is attempting to find a way to revive Japan's lumber industry. Interviews of officials and industry representatives predictably featured lots of moaning and whining about competition from overseas suppliers and the poor condition of the uncut--and unsold--cedar plantations that dominate Japanese mountainsides. Building bigger schools with domestic cedar could, they hoped, help turn the industry around, and clearing the tall, scrawny, closely-packed cedars out would allow for less crowded future stands of more robust, more competitive trees.
Yes, those are the same cedar plantations that the government's post-war reforestation policy produced, and that led to the annual epidemic of hay fever misery. I wrote about it here (sorry, the links seem to be dead, although you might be able to read the article in The Times if you pay for a subscription). You can try here, instead, for the basics.
Judging from the results of the school fire test, the folks who want to sell cedar lumber for wooden schools will have to wait a little longer.
A fire was started in the simulated school staff room on the first/ground floor, virtually exploded into a ball of flame within two minutes, and within 10 had gushed staight up to the roof, pretty much destroying between a quarter and a third of the building. Much of the structure was engulfed within 20 minutes, and the entire "school", high-tech safety features and all, was essentially reduced to cinders in a little over an hour.
I was astounded to learn that the Waseda University professor heading the research team claimed that the test confirmed the building's fire resistance. If that conflagration was indicative of fire resistance, I have to conclude that the comparison was to to a building made of nitrocellulose, or maybe "Canned Heat".
Several of the news stories mentioned that evacuating all the students from such a school is expected to take 10 minutes. My admittedly limited experience with fires in buildings, and with children, and with educators here, leads me to believe that this is optimism verging on the criminal. I very much doubt that most school teachers/administrators could/would react that fast, and I really doubt that school kids--panicked, screaming, amidst gushing smoke and flames--especially on the upper floors, could be evacuated in anything near that amount of time. From what I saw of the test, I'd expect half or more of the students and staff to be incinerated.
I'm not an engineer, nor a fire marshal either, but I also doubt that smoke detectors or sprinkler systems would do a lot toward reducing the casualties if such a building caught fire, particularly during the typically dry winter season in many parts of Japan. I definitely don't believe it would be worth the risk for the very dubious (except for the lumber industry, of course, and the MAFF) potential benefits.
It wasn't clear to me exactly who funded the test. I hope that my tax money wasn't used (although I suspect at least some of the funding came from taxes, at least indirectly). I would have been happy to save them a lot of money and--perhaps for a small consultant's fee--explained that building a three-story pile of wood, with lots of air spaces in it, and setting it alight is going to result in a big, fast fire.
It was clear that another attempt will be made within a year or so, incorporating whatever lessons were learned from this test. I would much rather that the money--nearly US$4 million--had been and would be spent on rebuilding in Tohoku instead.