Fire safety controversy continues to challenge $34 million UNCA residence buildings project

unc asheville student residences
UNC Asheville student residences (rendering from Hanbury)

The contractor that built the $34 million University of North Carolina Asheville (UNCA) residence buildings caught in a fire safety controversy has declined to comment despite a late spring assertion of concerns by the State Construction Office (SCO) about its work.

Frank L. Blum Construction Co. told the Asheville Citizen Times that it was advised by the SCO to not speak with news media.

The newspaper reported recently that state records revealed an inspection as construction was underway for the apartment-style dorms earlier in the year found evidence of “gross negligence” in installing fire safety measures.

Those findings contributed to a stop work order in mid-June as worries persisted over whether the dorms would meet fire safety standards, according to documents obtained by the Citizen Times through a public records request.

While SCO director Latif Khaid recently told the Courier Times that everything in the five buildings currently meets state code, and that any additional work being requested are “safety improvements,” not abatements, Kahid had reportedly expressed concerns with the contractor’s work in the spring.

The newspaper reported that, days after the original stop work order was issued, in an email exchange between Khaid and FL Blum vice-president Chris White, Khaid mentioned his disappointment with the contracting company.

“What we saw on the pictures provided by the Fire Marshall’s Office this past Friday was not expected from a company with your reputation,” Khaid said in an email on June 18.

Khaid wrote that he hoped a solution could be reached with “minimum disturbance to the schedule.”

The SCO has said that it believes the four-story structures now meet NC Building Code requirements, but the State Department of Insurance disagrees, resulting in chaos as students were barred from the residences as they started moving in. As a temporary solution, four firefighters are living in the residence and a fire truck is parked nearby, with the university paying the $2,500 per day cost to the municipal fire department.

UNCA officials said they followed the SCO’s lead as the dorms were being built.

“We don’t consider them as an abatement since they are not required by code, they are improvements,” Khaid was quoted as saying. “We feel the five buildings are safe and safe for occupancy.”

“If it wasn’t safe we would not approve it or accept it,” Khaid said. “It is unheard of that we would ever accept something that is unsafe.”

However, Department of Insurance public affairs assistant Barry Smith said the department still sees the concerns as a threat to life safety.

The university is working with designers to make changes to the buildings, despite being granted a SCO certificate of occupancy.

Hanbury is the project’s architect, with John Dreiling the assigned assistant principal architect.


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