Builders Stop Fire Sprinkler Advocates’ Forced Home Entry

Solid promotion of a deep wall, roof, landscape and interior product catalog has helped ready mixed and manufactured-concrete producers capture a few

Don Marsh, Editor

Solid promotion of a deep wall, roof, landscape and interior product catalog has helped ready mixed and manufactured-concrete producers capture a few more cents of the residential building dollar over the past decade Û for a net gain well into the tens of billions. Excepting hurricane-prone markets where robust wall construction for at least the first level of a home is the norm, concrete interests have expanded residential share not by building-code mandate, but by offering solutions or products in which prospective buyers perceive value, like an energy-efficient, insulated concrete form wall; an exterior with unique faux-stone precast veneer; a colored, pattern-stamped patio; an elevated garden bed of segmental retaining wall units; or, a precast or cast-in-place countertop.

Not all business interests targeting the residential market consider the customer king. The Michigan Association of Home Builders (MAHB) and Pennsylvania Builders Association (PBA) are confronting code measures Û backed by fire protection system manufacturers Û mandating sprinklers for single-family units. Both groups seem keenly aware of the anti-consumer sentiment behind code provisions adding thousands to a home’s cost, but not necessarily a dime of extra perceived value.

MAHB is preparing to challenge a statewide mandate for fire sprinklers in new single-family homes during Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth hearings next month. This is about the preservation of affordable housing and personal choice, says MAHB Executive Vice President for Government Relations Lee Schwartz. The sprinkler folks say it’s about providing a level of safety, but the same level of safety is already provided by smoke alarms.

Michigan builders supported a bill behind a current law requiring smoke alarms in all homes, he adds, as studies showed that most house fires take place in older residences, and safety measures like smoke alarms are likely to have the biggest impact. When sprinklers cost $2 to $3 per square foot, you’re pricing out families who would most benefit from an affordable new home, and allowing them to remain in an older, demonstrably less safe home, Schwartz affirms. That is the paradox of mandatory sprinkler requirements Û you end up putting more people at risk.

MAHB’s Pennsylvania counterpart is tracking a local, versus statewide, sprinkler mandate. In what the PBA noted as a significant victory for affordable housing, the Chester County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas struck down in late August a residential fire sprinkler ordinance in Schuylkill Township, near Philadelphia. Consumers have the option to install fire sprinklers if they so choose, but this added financial burden should not be government imposed, said PBA President Brad Elliott.

Eyeing a variance from state code, the township argued that traffic congestion, steep roadways, and a decline in volunteer fire fighter ranks warranted its push for mandatory fire sprinklers. PBA cited in its challenge the Pennsylvania building code, which was enacted in 2004 without measures for such devices. The code ensures the quality and safety of new home construction in Pennsylvania. If needless variances are granted to various localities, the advantages of having a single building code for everyone will be lost, affirms Elliott. The court’s order protects residential building code uniformity, [which] benefits everyone by ensuring the construction of safe, high-quality and affordable homes.

The budget behind a typical new home is a zero-sum game; a premium kitchen countertop, for example, might mean the buyer defaults to a cheap asphalt versus quality concrete driveway. All product and materials suppliers in the residential market should know the stakes. By framing discussion of residential fire sprinkler mandates around costs, benefits and buyer choice, groups like PBA and MAHB keep a level playing field where value providers prevail and customers wear the crown.

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