The issue of weighing fire safety measures against affordable residential development has fire officials and builders at odds in Waukee and Johnston, where the city councils are reviewing and updating fire codes.
On one side are the fire chiefs who say that requiring sprinkler systems in townhouses is essential to keeping the residents safe. On the other is the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines and developers, who argue the systems are unnecessary and raise building costs, which ultimately come down on buyers.
The issue attracted statewide attention in late 2009 and early 2010, when the Iowa Legislature removed a portion of the state’s updated building code that would have required sprinklers in all single- and double-family houses — a measure that was a controversial part of the 2009 International Fire Code.
Growth in Waukee makes it the right time for the city to adopt the 2009 version of the International Fire Code, Fire Chief Clint Robinson said. The City Council passed the first two readings of the updated fire code.
The new code, if passed by the council, would require any townhouse development of 8,000 square feet or more to install a sprinkler system.
Johnston instituted the 8,000-square-foot requirement for townhomes in 2006. The city is also updating its building codes to include the 2009 international codes, and the homebuilders association hopes to see the requirement removed.
Requiring sprinklers for residential properties, including townhomes, has been endorsed by numerous firefighter trade groups, including the Iowa Association of Professional Fire Chiefs. The IAPFC has likened the systems to “silent guardians” that back up the protection offered by smoke detectors, which studies have shown are sometimes ineffective at waking up sleeping residents, especially children.
The safety provided by the sprinklers is especially important in townhouses, where greater numbers of people live closer together, Robinson said.
“If you live in a house, you control whether the candle gets put out, you control your house,” he said. “If you’re living in a townhome, there’s five other people that may not be blowing out their candles or have the gas can stored in the garage. The risk level goes up significantly because of the number of people that live in one structure.”
The position of the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines is that sprinklers should remain a choice, said Creighton Cox, the group’s executive officer. When sprinkler systems are required, it can drive the cost of a townhouse up between $4,000 and $6,000, he said.
Cox has asked the Waukee and Johnston councils to amend the code so that townhouses have to install sprinklers only if there are more than eight townhouses in a row or if any of the structures has fewer than two exits, including doors and windows.
Waukee fire chief made concession
The proposed requirement for Waukee is a concession for Robinson. When the updated code first passed the council on June 4, it would have required any townhouse development of 6,000 square feet or more to install sprinklers.
After the first reading, Robinson said the department decided to adjust the requirement in an effort to come closer to a compromise with the homebuilders association and to mirror the proposal for single-family residences.
The updated code would also require any single-family house of 8,000 or more square feet to install fire sprinklers. That proposal has not drawn fire from developers, Robinson said, as they understand that in a bigger house, residents may be farther away from an exit in a fire.
The common thinking is that townhome residents are closer to exits. However, townhomes are often three stories high, with a garage on the bottom, a kitchen and living room on the second floor and sleeping quarters on the third floor, he said.
“It’s like an apartment, that you’re on the third floor,” he said. “You’re exponentially increasing your distance from where you’re sleeping to the point where you can get out.”
Apartment buildings in Waukee are already required to be sprinkled, he said.
Johnston already has stricter codes
The Johnston City Council took steps on June 18 to adopt the 2009 International Fire Code. The city’s code was last updated in 2006.
At the meeting, Fire Chief Jim Krohse highlighted a major concern many developers have had with the 2009 code: a requirement that all new residential properties, regardless of size, have a fire sprinkler system.
The city has no plans for that strict of a requirement, Krohse said.
“There are literally zero communities in the state that have gone down that road and I didn’t feel like going down that road either,” the chief said.
“The sprinkler requirements will remain status quo. We will make no changes to what was adopted in 2006.”
Cox, of the homebuilders group, used the public hearing to speak against Johnston’s sprinkler requirements for townhouses.
“It is out of line with the rest of the communities,” he said.
“Each of your neighbors does not have that with the exception of course of Grimes.”
In Urbandale, townhouses with 8,000 square feet must be sprinkled if there is only one exit. Townhouses in Johnston must be sprinkled when they reach up to 8,000 square feet.
Mayor Paula Dierenfeld asked the chief for his reaction to Cox’s comments.
“So effectively what would be proposed would be to weaken the current code we have in the city of Johnston,” Krohse said.
Councilman Matt Brown said the council would make a decision on the fire sprinkler issue after receiving Krohse’s opinion and reviewing what neighboring communities do.
“I don’t want to be inconsistent but I also want to do what’s best for us,” he said.
Adam Grubb with Jerry’s Homes thinks the requirement of sprinklers in townhomes adds about $6,000 to their cost.
“We try to build something that’s quality and energy efficient. It’s our opinion that it is not a demand of the consumer to have those in there,” he said.
Fire sprinklers wise move, officials say
Other metro-area fire officials say fire sprinklers are a wise move from a safety standpoint.
Between 2009 and 2012, the West Des Moines Fire Department advocated for the same language that would require townhomes of 8,000 square feet or more to have sprinklers, said Mike Whitsell, a fire marshal with the department. The measure ultimately did not pass the City Council, he said.
The city will most likely revisit the issue in 2015, when it begins talks about updating the 2012 edition of the codes, Whitsell said. Despite objections from homebuilders, it’s still a discussion worth having, he said.
While developers point to the firewalls that are built separating the townhomes, too often their effectiveness can be diminished by installing cable or utilities, he said.
“They put firewalls in those structures, but a lot of times those firewalls get compromised,” he said.
At the state level, Assistant State Fire Marshal Jeffrey Quigle says his department believes the systems save lives.
Building code policy relevant to the systems, however, is set at the local level, he said.
While he says he understands builders’ concerns, he expects that someday the systems will be regularly installed in developments.
“They do save lives. They will put out a fire quicker,” he said. “It’s going to take a few years before they really catch hold and sweep across the country. I think we’ll see that, I really do.”