Clovis News

Fire sprinkler rule stirs cost issue for builders

New building-safety codes that require a fire sprinkler system in all new homes in California starting next year could save lives -- but also flood local builders with extra costs and a longer road to recovery from the recession.

Starting Jan. 1, all new one- and two-family homes and townhomes must have fire sprinklers installed in every room. Commercial property and multifamily units are already required to have sprinklers.

The California Building Standards Commission adopted the law in January to reduce fires and enhance fire safety. For many, the costs are a big concern.

"It's a tough thing to swallow for new building codes to come out in a bad economy when sales are at their lowest," said Ash Knowlton, vice president of construction for McCaffrey Homes.

Residential fire sprinklers are temperature controlled and only go off where there is a fire. They can cost about $2 to $4 per square foot, which could add between $2,000 and $5,000 to the cost of building each home, builders say.

Those costs will typically be passed on to buyers, Knowlton said.

"It's never fun to have to pass on costs or to have your costs increase to build a house, especially in a down economy," Knowlton said.

Clovis builder De Young Properties is reviewing the new costs. Affordability is still an issue in this market, said Ryan De Young, vice president of finance.

But the company isn't against fire sprinklers, which will improve home safety and add value to a new home, De Young said.

It will be a costly addition for the Coalition for Urban Renewal Excellence, a nonprofit housing agency that builds affordable homes in Fresno County.

"I understand why the state wants to do it, but there's a cost-benefit analysis that needs to be done," said Nathan Magsig, the coalition's executive director.

In 2009, the agency built about 500 homes in Clovis neighborhoods. This year, the agency is on track to build 350 homes, but Magsig doesn't know how many homes the agency will be able to build next year.

But the Fresno Fire Department believes saving a life outweighs the extra costs. The new code comes four years after the city tried unsuccessfully to pass its own ordinance to have fire sprinkler systems installed in all new-home kitchens.

"We have the technology to save lives, and now we have the law in the books in order to implement that technology," said Fresno Fire Chief Joel Aranaz.

There are about 4,000 fire deaths a year nationwide and 83% of those occur in the home, Aranaz said. When smoke detectors became mandatory in the 1980s, the number of fire deaths was cut almost in half, he said.