Mandated Residential Fire Sprinklers: A Serious Blow to Housing Affordability & Safety

On the very weekend the Federal Government proposed an historic bailout plan to rescue the financial markets (and ultimately to get people back into home-buying mode), voting members of the International Code Council adopted an unprecedented frontal assault on housing affordability.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 21, final votes were cast for the inclusion of mandatory residential fire sprinklers in the 2009 International Residential Code – the code utilized by most communities that recognize a building code. A two-thirds vote was required to adopt the new mandate, but the deck was heavily stacked against affordability. Fire sprinkler manufacturers stand to gain billions of dollars when their product is required by code, and they were willing to spend millions to get there – effectively mobilizing hundreds of eligible “yes” voters and flying them from all over the country to vote for the change.

The sudden — and controversial — arrival of 900 fire officials eligible to vote at the International Code Council‘s final action hearings swelled the number of sprinkler proponents, and the measure was approved by a vote of 1,283 to 470. About 1,200 voting devices were turned in immediately after the residential fire sprinkler mandate was approved; suggesting that most of the proponents left immediately after the vote was taken.

To be a voting member of the International Code Council, you have to be a governmental member of ICC. City and county building and fire officials were eligible to vote, and they were lobbied effectively. It seems the only people not allowed a vote are those who are governed by the code. Builders and others in the industry are not given the right to vote at this event. The National Association of Home Builders lobbies. Members try to get on key committees. But we are allowed no vote.

There’s more. The ICC is a private entity. It is not answerable to any government, to taxpayers, or, well, anyone. It is a private organization that develops the code that thousands of municipalities and counties nationwide dutifully adopt (usually with no substantial local scrutiny or discussion).

Enough about process. This is terrible public policy, regardless of the fact that it now is included in the IRC, or how it got there. Local building departments, city councils, and county commissions should exercise reasonable and wise judgment and reject it when they get the opportunity. Among the best reasons to amend the IRC to strike the new sprinkler provision:

Housing affordability has reached its tipping point. In our area, the median earner can no longer afford the median priced new home. This mandate would push home prices another $5,000 to $7,000 out of their reach.

The mandate is most punitive against those who can least afford it. Adding a few thousand dollars to the price of a million dollar home may be a nuisance, but it is unlikely to prevent the home from being built or bought. But what about a family’s first starter home? What about workforce housing? Habitat for Humanity? A $1,000 increase to the price of a home drives 402 Ozarks families out of the ability to buy the home. This mandate will prohibit thousands more from achieving the American Dream of Homeownership.

The technology is unreliable. Most home owners are unprepared to perform the maintenance required to ensure that the sprinklers remain operational. Pipes installed in attics freeze in colder climates. Sprinklers can be discharged accidentally, with damaging results. In areas served by wells or where water is scarce, the availability of an adequate water supply presents additional problems.

The new mandate won’t save lives. Fire deaths happen in old homes, not new ones. Basic modern building codes, smoke alarm requirements and other common sense and affordable modern residential fire protection have made new homes the safest in the housing stock.

The new mandate forces people to live in older, more dangerous housing stock – where their risk of fire death is greater. If people can’t afford a new home, where will they live? Older homes. Homes built before the modern residential fire protection are deathtraps in a fire. The best solution for saving lives is to make new housing as affordable as possible, getting families into safer, new homes.

The new mandate will lead to urban sprawl, and the “donut effect” in communities. Good builders have traditionally been happy to build in communities with reasonable building codes. But there are plenty of buildable areas in the Ozarks that are not under the IRC or any building code. It will be difficult to resist the temptation to build the same home a little further away for thousands of dollars less. And it will be difficult for buyers to resist the temptation to save those thousands when the only difference in the home is a costly amenity they wouldn’t have chosen if they’d been given the option.

These are facts. Don’t take my word for it. The data supports these conclusions. A full analysis of the data was conducted by NAHB’s Elliot Eisenberg and can be found here:

As undeniable as these facts are, they are not the only facts now in play. The most ominous one is this: Fire sprinkler mandates will be part of the 2009 International Residential Code and will be required in all one- and two-family homes and townhouses that build to the code as of Jan. 1, 2011. Let’s hope our local officials exercise better judgment in amending the code, than the ICC exercised in drafting and approving it.