Just over a month after a fatal blaze ravaged Marshall Square Retirement Community, owners of the burned resort in Evans said they will rebuild.
“Not only is it our hope and intent to rebuild, we’re preparing to rebuild,” said Steve Mueller, chief operating officer for Resort Lifestyle Communities, the Nebraska-based company that owns the property. “We can’t move forward without a lot of other things playing out.”
Mueller said a construction timeline is contingent on the insurance settlement, conclusion of the fire investigation and the permitting process with Columbia County Development Services.
Just six months after residents began moving into the $27 million “all-inclusive” senior facility, a June 2 fire destroyed the central part and eastern wing of the three-story, 188,000-square-foot retirement complex. Dorothy “Dot” Carpenter, 91, died in the blaze. More than 80 residents were displaced.
When asked if a future facility in Marshall Square would be designed or built differently to ensure that a similar incident did not occur, Mueller said only that the company would continue to follow building guidelines as required by code.
“We’re governed by code so I can only tell you that we built it to code, and we would build it to code again,” he said. “Is it possible that code will change? I suppose that’s possible, but that’s way out of my area of expertise.
“We follow what we’re demanded to build. We’re held to some very high standards by the county.”
The complex had safety features, such as automatic sprinklers, fire alarms and smoke detectors in hallways and units, but was built with a nearly all-wood frame and no sprinkler system in the attic.
Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said because the submitted plans called for an “active adult community,” the building was permitted under the same standards as an apartment complex.
“Should they come in with the same sort of plan, we would permit it the same way,” Johnson said. “Certainly in this situation it begs the question, ‘What is the intended use of this building?’ I think that if they intend to use it or if we can determine that they intend to use it as an assisted living-type facility, then it will follow a certain set of guidelines.”
Independent senior living facilities, such as Marshall Square, are treated as apartment complexes under the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code, the standard most commonly used. They have no specific minimum construction requirements and can be “stick built,” or framed with wood. If a facility has fewer than five stories, it can use a less-extensive sprinkler system, with no sprayers required in attics.
Guidelines for assisted living facilities are much stricter, according to the NFPA manual. Unless fire-resistant building materials are in place, wood construction is only allowed when large facilities are limited to a single story. Structures with more than one story must be built with more or all noncombustible elements. Attics must also include enhanced fire-safety features or sprinklers if the area is used for living space, storage or to house fuel-fire equipment.
“Arguably there is an issue with elderly people being on a top floor that may not be able to get out on their own, so that’s something that we will definitely take a look at and question them about as they come back in with their plans,” Johnson said. “But, it would be really speculative on my part to say how we’re going to approve a set of plans without seeing the set of plans and seeing what their intent is.”
Mueller said future redevelopment plans would require demolition of the core and eastern wing of the building, though he hoped to salvage at least the outer portion of the western wing that was not fire damaged.
“We’re very happy with our decision to come to Evans, and it was very much playing out exactly as we had anticipated,” he said. “We have no second thoughts about rebuilding. It was immediately our intent to rebuild.”
Mueller said marketing the new development will present a challenge, but the company has already been discussing ideas of attracting residents.
Though Mueller said it was premature to talk specifically about marketing efforts, he said a key piece of the strategy will come from residents who lived in the building before the fire.
“When the time comes that we are rebuilding that’s definitely one of our challenges, but we feel like we have enough leverage in the residents and in the lifestyle that we presented,” he said. “Evans was a great place for us to build, and it will be a great place for us to build again.”