Chicago Sprinkler Mandate: Bridging the Code Gap

Creating and revising building codes normally moves at a glacial pace—until disaster strikes and pushes authorities into action. The problem is that government agencies are often politically pressured to act fast under extraordinary circumstances and don't have the time to spell out all the details in the code.


Creating and revising building codes normally moves at a glacial pace—until disaster strikes and pushes authorities into action. The problem is that government agencies are often politically pressured to act fast under extraordinary circumstances and don't have the time to spell out all the details in the code.

Take, for example, the recent addition of the Retrofit Sprinkler/Life-Safety Ordinance to the City of Chicago Building Code. Among other requirements, this new code calls on owners of all nonresidential high-rise buildings—defined as building exceeding 80 ft. in height above grade—to install fire sprinklers.

By Sept. 1, 2005, an owner must submit a plan to the city for protecting a building "throughout by an approved automatic sprinkler system." The work must be completed by Jan. 1, 2017. Provisions for key milestones between these two dates are included.

The impetus for the new code provisions is a pair of high-rise fires—one following almost on the anniversary of the other. First, on Oct. 17, 2003, a fire at the Cook County Administration Building in Chicago's Loop resulted in six fatalities and several injuries. Just over a year later and about half a mile away, a fire in the LaSalle Bank Building in Chicago's Loop started on the 29th floor, spread to the 30th floor and injured 37 people, mostly from smoke inhalation.

The fact that these fires were in non-sprinklered, nonresidential buildings explains the focus of these new code provisions. But Dan Murphy, P.E., LEED, with Environmental Systems Design, Chicago, speaking at a recent seminar on the subject, noted that actually, more than 90% of high-rise fires happen in residential buildings.

Realizing the need to educate owner-clients on these new code provisions, ESD sponsored the seminar to impress upon owners the need to get busy on this issue right away and to explain to them the significance of many of these new provisions. Co-sponsoring the seminar was Chicago-based System Development Integration, a real estate consulting firm well-positioned to help owners meet document filing deadlines that are now required.

"The new code has a whole lot of dates that, if you're not careful, will sneak up on you," said Murphy. "And the city is very serious about enforcing it. For example, just saying that you have a plan by Sept. 1 isn't enough; you're going to need to tell the city exactly what you plan to do."

Murphy pointed out a number of specific areas where the code isn't especially clear about how these retrofits should happen. Even though the ordinance defines specific milestones for installation of sprinkler systems in these buildings—one-third complete by Jan. 1, 2009; two-thirds complete by Jan. 1, 2013; and substantial completion by 2017—it really doesn't define how to go about it. For example, does one-third complete mean contiguous floors? Or if it makes sense, could an owner install sprinklers on the top and bottom floors in up to one-third of the building?

"Much of the detail in complying with these codes will have to be filled in as we go along," said Murphy. "The role of the engineering consultant in all of this will have to be as an owner's advocate."

This, of course, is not to suggest that the new life safety and sprinkler retrofit ordinance is a slapdash piece of work, thrown together by politicians to appease constituents.

"Chicago is probably now the leading city in the nation in terms of fire and life-safety requirements," observed Andrew Jenkins, AIA, projective executive with the Chicago Housing Authority. "Up until the late '80s, it was New York City." Jenkins, who attended the EDS seminar, knows. He hails from New York and worked there for several years before coming to the Midwest.

But for even the best codes, the details are something that authorities having jurisdiction and building designers work out in real-life situations. In the case of Chicago's new code, filling in the details must begin right away. "When 36 million sq. ft. of sprinkler rolls in, the city will be swamped," said Murphy.

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