In a study of home fires in the Washington area, the National Bureau of Standards says better design, workmanship and code enforcement, as well as code improvements by the localities could have helped prevent them.

The study was designed to help end opportunities for what building codes call "the free passage of flame through concealed spaces or openings in the event of fire." Fire-resistant shealth - usually gypsum board - protecting the combustible parts of a structure can be one major preventative, the bureau found.

The bureau gave this typical account of a local fire, one of 84 during a five-year period studied by its center for fire research:

"An electricl defect started a fire within a vertical void between two first-floor apartments of a garden complex. Flaming material fell out onto an upholstered chair in the basement.

"First-arriving volunteer units assumed that the chair fire was the full extent of the problem; additional responding units were returned to quarters by radio and it was necessary to recall them when fire was detected coming from the attic."

Not unlike other fires, this one made surprising headway, beginning at a connecting point between two apartments. It spread conspicuously to the basement but stealthily to the attic. Then it threatend to spread through other parts of the housing complex.

The 84 area fires, in which 14 persons died, occured in garden apartments, rowhouses and other residential complexes in Maryland and Virginia communities around Washington.

The NBS study, made by Francis L. Brannigan of the University of Maryland's Fire and Rescue Institute, was analyzed by Bertram M. Vogel of the NBS center for fire research and recently published as a "Study of Fire Spread in Multi-Family Residences: The Causes - the Remedies."

Garden apartments often have modern bathrooms, balconies, recreation rooms, utility rooms and connected, gable-roof attics. Some of these features may be potential fire problems, according to Brannigan. But the NBS studies indicate that understanding and use of fire protection principles usually will contain a localized fire.

For instance, a built-in bathtub has more eye appeal than a claw-legged, raised tub of yesteryear (even though those tubs now are back in vogue). Today's built-in tub often connects to three or four-story vertical voids for waste and vent piping. Often plumbing facilities for several residential apartments are installed by cutting through fire-protective sheathing, Brannigan said. Thus, flames can spread through those those openings to units above the site of the fire.