April 23, 2018
Real Estate

Townhome-sprinkler rule has builders feeling hosed

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Nordic Builders of Tolland LLC erected these unsprinklered Manchester townhomes.
Gregory Seay

New townhouses built in Connecticut could become more expensive — and safer in a fire — if the state co-signs a recently embraced building standard requiring installation of sprinkler systems in these attached living units.

Designed and built like apartments and condominiums, but typically sold to owner-occupants, townhomes occupy a relatively small niche in the state's housing inventory.

On April 11, the state's Codes and Standards Committee, responsible for setting building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing and energy code requirements for all residential and commercial structures, voted 11-1, with two abstentions, to require new townhomes be equipped with overhead water sprinklers that would automatically activate in a fire.

Next step is for the state Legislative Regulation Review Committee to decide, within 45 days of formal notification of the committee's vote, whether the measure proceeds toward a July 1 implementation. Or, the regulation review panel could direct the measure back to the Codes and Standards Committee for more discussion and/or public hearings, authorities say.

Connecticut's homebuilders are upset about the new requirement, which they say would add at least $10,000 per unit to build new townhouses. That, in turn, says Tolland homebuilder Liz Koivo means she would have to price her units higher, to recover sprinkler-installation costs from buyers.

Koivo, co-owner with her husband for 30 years of Nordic Builders of Tolland LLC, says her townhome community, 32-unit The Village At Red Rock in Manchester, has units starting at $249,999. She fears a sprinkler requirement would render them less appealing and less profitable.

"At that price range, there's not a lot of markup,'' she said. "They're not cheap to build.''

In Suffield, builder Mark O'Neill says he has delayed his planned 70-unit Brook Hill Village townhome project due to the pending sprinkler requirement. O'Neill planned his development in tandem with an adjoining 84-unit apartment community being built by Dakota Partners, of Waltham, Mass.

Things could have been potentially worse for homebuilders. Initially the Codes and Standards Committee wanted sprinklers in all newly built single- and two-family houses but they backed off that measure because it would be too costly to builders and buyers.

Instead, they settled on townhomes because they share common walls and tend to have more open floor plans. Apartments and commercial buildings are already required to have sprinklers.

It is those open floor plans, with wood trusses and other lightweight, man-made materials, that allow shorter "flash-over'' times once they ignite, says West Haven Fire Marshal Keith Flood, who voted for sprinklers as a committee member.

Flood said industry data shows that a smoke detector raises to 50 percent the odds of surviving a fire. Combined with a sprinkler, survivability climbs to 80 percent, he said.

To counter builders' cost argument, Flood said the sprinkler coalition he chairs, whose members include fire marshals, sprinkler installers, insurers and others, hired a construction estimator to verify.

A five-unit townhome building with four mandatory "fire-break" walls would realize a $33,000 savings because state law allows for thinner walls in sprinklered buildings.

"That savings would offset the cost, for the most part, for the sprinklers,'' Flood said.

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