By Christopher E. Chwedyk, CSI, AIA
In mid-February of this year, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released a legislative update on their Fire Sprinkler Initiative Project – “Bringing Safety Home” e-mail blast, titled “Are Home Fire Sprinkler Opponents Threatening Safety In Your State?” Apparently, at least a dozen states in the U.S. have proposed state legislation that would restrict a community’s ability to make its own decision about whether to enforce the requirement to provide fire sprinklers in all new one-and-two family dwelling units. These states include Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah. In Kentucky, a circuit court recently rejected a bid to allow local governments to mandate the installation of fire sprinkler systems in new home construction.
The NFPA Building Construction (5000) and Life Safety (101) Codes have required sprinklers in all new one-and-two family dwellings since 2006. However, for the first time the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) now contains a section R313.2 stating that “Effective January 1, 2011, an automatic residential fire sprinkler system shall be installed in one-and-two family dwellings.” This provision was passed at the 2008 International Code Council hearings in a somewhat controversial manner (many fire officials were at the hearings only to vote on this particular issue) and attempts were made prior to the code’s publication to rescind this requirement, to no avail. Much of the current legislation mentioned above would specifically prohibit the inclusion of one-and-two family sprinkler provisions statewide, rather than allow each municipality to enact “more stringent” provisions than enacted by the state, as has been normally and traditionally allowed. In addition to the states already mentioned, Ohio has postponed adoption of the 2009 International Building Code (IBC) and IRC until at least June of 2011. Minnesota has decided to skip the adoption of the 2009 edition of the codes altogether.
Now, this reaction is clearly an attempt by legislation to ease the perceived threat to initiating new home construction in a slow economy. At the same time, it brings up questions regarding the very essence of why the model building codes are written in the first place. Shorty after this NFPA update appeared, David Collins of The Preview Group sent out a questionnaire to several architects asking them to weigh-in on the issue by choosing one of three possible responses:
- A. I don’t see this as any different from any other modifications that states and local jurisdictions make to the codes.
- B. This is the type of political pressure that a powerful group can exert locally to prevent change (regardless of whether it is right or wrong).
- C. We (as design professionals) should work with our partners and ICC to see that codes don’t wander too far from a path where consistent regulations can be supported and adopted.
The consensus from this small group wat that ‘C’ was the best answer, since the extraordinary efforts being mounted by opponents regarding one sentence in a building code clearly negates ‘A’, and ‘B’ is just a passive acceptance. The discussion then became one of suggesting that design professionals become more actively involved in the code making process. However, none of these responses, it would appear, gets to the heart of the matter – does this provision in the code actually make sense?
The general argument for providing sprinkler systems in homes is that most fires occur there and a significant reduction in fire loss and fire deaths would be accomplished if sprinklers were mandated in the code. One community that has had this sprinkler provision mandated for several years is Scottsdale, AZ. Their figures show that fire sprinklers in single-family homes reduced potential fire loss by 95% in the period between 1986 and 2001, saving at least a dozen lives. Another study, recently released by NFPA, entitled “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Automatic Fire Extinguishing Equipment“, concludes that the death rate per fire in sprinklered homes is lowered by 83% and that damage per fire is lowered by 40-70%. As far as increased costs are concerned, a 2008 report by Newhouse Partners concluded that the average cost of installing sprinkler systems by home-builders was only $1.61 per sprinklered square-foot.
The opposing side points to potential accidental sprinkler activation, the failure rate of non-maintained residential sprinklers, as well as issues related to the challenges faced by rural areas and limited water availability. Another school of thought is that passive fire resistance (construction using better fire-resistive materials and compartmentalizing floors of a building into fire areas) is superior to relying on active sprinkler systems. This has certainly been expressed in Chicago, for example, where it is unlikely that sprinklers will ever be mandated for any buildings under five stories, much less single family homes – this despite the fact that recent residential high rise fires (especially the Streeterville fire last December) have brought some question as to whether the City’s Life Safety Evaluation system for pre-1975 buildings has allowed too many existing residential buildings to be left without sprinklers. Ironically, politicians voted to extend the deadline for installing improved communication systems in residential high rises from 2012 to 2015, again as part of a perceived need to save taxpayer money.
There are no easy answers to these questions. However, the debate does bring into focus the fact that codes are laws and laws are made by politicians, whether appointed or voted into office. The idea that model codes are always based on good judgment and common sense for the common good and are enacted to save lives, or that they are always accepted without question, is simply not the case. The residential sprinkler issue is a prime example of where the prescriptive method of code compliance and the adoption of model code language appear to fall short of stated intentions. That being said, many believe that it should be up to design professionals and specifiers to look beyond the minimum requirements of the codes and, in some situations, to take some responsibility and recommend a higher standard by which to apply these requirements.
About the Author:
Christopher E. Chwedyk, CSI, AIA is a licensed architect, Director and Chief Code Consultant of The Code Group at Burnham Nationwide in Chicago. He was previously the principal of Gage-Babcock and Associates; a firm specialized in fire protection engineering. With more than 32 years of experience in the architectural field, Mr. Chwedyk has performed numerous code compliance plan reviews for the City of Chicago and other municipailites. He has a BArch degree from UIC and a Masters of Project Management (MPM) from the Keller Graduate School of Management. An adjunct faculty member of Harper College since 1998, Chris teaches courses on building codes and construction drawings.