Home builders appear to have accepted defeat at the national level, so they’ve taken the fight to state and local jurisdictions - where we must confront them next.

Leading up to the International Code Council annual meeting and code change hearings, held in Baltimore the last week of October, the buzz was about the code changes on residential sprinklers. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) submitted a change to reverse the mandate of residential sprinklers in all one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses. Their hope was that the vote in Minnesota (in September 2008) had been a fluke.

Many state home builders’ associations promoted the fact that the Minnesota vote occurred at a meeting filled with sprinkler proponents. The voting method that NAHB long supported had been used against them, and they didn’t like it. In fact, the vote in Minnesota was very legitimate. It just didn’t go the way NAHB had hoped.

A Very Powerful Tool

The code change hearing was supposed to correct any of the ills from Minnesota. However, there was a new procedure to deal with at these hearings. Once the Code Change Committee voted, anyone could ask for a vote from the floor.

All members of the ICC are eligible to vote. If the floor votes by a two-thirds majority to reverse the decision of the Committee, the floor vote becomes the standing motion.

The ICC recently implemented this procedure, and it is a very powerful tool!

When changes to the International Residential Code were considered, the room was packed. More than 1,800 electronic voting devices were issued. While some of the devices were used in the other code hearing (two were going on at the same time), more than 1,400 devices were in the Residential Code hearing.

The IRC code committee is unique. As a partner with NAHB, the ICC grants four voting members of the committee to NAHB. With 12 members on the committee, NAHB controls one-third of the votes. While this arrangement has been both cursed and praised, the bottom line is that home builder representatives should and will always serve on the IRC code committee. Just like plumbing engineers should always serve on the Plumbing Code Change Committee.

After a long day, the residential sprinkler code changes finally came to the floor a little after 8 p.m. NAHB presented their testimony first as the proponent of the code change. One of their statistics (from the NFPA) was interesting, to say the least. NAHB claimed that you stood a 99.5% chance of surviving a residential fire in an unsprinklered home. Hence, why add the cost of sprinklers?

During the rebuttal, a representative from NFPA commented that the statistics were misrepresented. He pointed out that you stand a better chance of surviving an automobile accident without air bags. Then he asked, “Should we do away with air bags?”

Of course, the statistic was based onallfires, regardless of size. The statistic did, however, point out that there are still approximately 3,000 fire deaths per year in residential fires. The question became: Should we ignore the loss of 3,000 innocent lives per year when we have a low-cost, simple technology that will prevent this huge loss of life?

The testimony was much shorter than similar testimony given in Minnesota last year. However, it was equally as passionate on both sides.

Once public testimony was completed, the committee was given the opportunity to debate the issue and make a motion. Past IRC code change committees have never supported the mandate of residential sprinklers.

The initial motion made by the committee was to reject the code change. This, in effect, would keep residential sprinklers mandated in the IRC.

Fascinating to Hear

Fascinating to Hear The discussion by the committee was fascinating to hear. They discussed how the membership of ICC had spoken…and residential sprinklers must remain mandated. One of the proponents mentioned how inexpensive it was to sprinkler Habitat for Humanity homes. This caught the committee’s attention.

The final vote of the committee was 7-4 for the motion, with the four votes against the motion coming from the NAHB representatives. Every other member of the committee voted in favor of mandating sprinklers.

As a symbolic gesture, the NAHB representative testifying on the code change made a floor motion to accept the change. This motion was met with some chuckles in the room. When the vote was taken, about 40 people in the room voted in favor, while approximately 1,500 people opposed the motion.

The result is that the committee recommendation will maintain the sprinkler mandate for all one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses.This is another major victory for the mandate of sprinklers in residential buildings.

However, as one of the IRC committee members stated, the sprinkler proponents have their work cut out for them. He indicated that this same push must now commence on the state level.

Everyone at the hearings was aware that the state home builder groups have been using their political power to block the adoption of the 2009 International Residential Code. Now it is time for the building code community to use their political influence to mandate sprinklers.

It was clear that NAHB was not expending their capital on the ICC Code Change process. They have taken the fight to the state and local jurisdictions. In effect, they have given up on winning at ICC. They realize that the IRC will continue to mandate sprinklers.

There is still a chance that NAHB, or one of the state builders groups, will file a public comment to resurrect the code change at the final hearing. However, it will take a two-thirds majority vote to remove the sprinkler mandate. That is a daunting task, especially in light of the movement within ICC.

It is hoped that NAHB will get on board and work with ICC on the sprinkler mandate. It is in their best interest to have the sprinkler issue addressed properly. They also can help to have the licensing laws corrected so that there is a new category of contractors that just design and install residential sprinkler systems. I hold out hope for this change in attitude and a movement toward cooperation.