"The cost is so insignificant:" NFPA chats with homebuilder who supports home fire sprinklers
A recent summit hosted by the Missouri Fire Sprinkler Coalition introduced attendees to something of an anomaly--a builder who fully supports home fire sprinklers. Admitting that some of his peers and local homebuilding associations take a different stance, Randy Propst, owner of Loran Construction, has seen the realities of fire sprinkler installation in new homes. He recently spoke with NFPA about his experience with this safety feature and why he's perplexed by the opposition's anti-sprinkler stance.
NFPA: Why have you started sprinklering your new homes?
I started building homes through a program by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program gives specific cities a certain amount of money to do with it as they please, as long as it improves affordable housing. In Springfield, Missouri, they've created a “bank” for this money. I borrow money to build these affordable homes. In turn, I have to keep my rent within HUD's levels.
Four years ago, we linked up with company Arc of the Ozarks [an organization supporting individuals with disabilities]. The company would rent a home from us for the people they serve and their caregivers. As we started working with them, we realized we're missing something here. These homes need to be universally designed, which means they can accommodate people with various limitations. Concurrently, we got on a savings, energy, and safety kick. From a safety factor, we know we needed to start including fire sprinklers. The last four or five homes have been sprinklered. We'll probably build another five or six this year, all sprinklered. Sprinklers will now be a standard part of our package. We have also tinkered with the idea of building spec homes, and if we do, they will all be sprinklered. I want the competitive advantage. [The insignificant cost of sprinklering a home] won't make or break a home sale, but tell me who else is offering this safety feature.
What have your installation costs been?
When building homes, the city assigns a project manager. He picked the wrong specification to follow. We were following NFPA 13R, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies. [NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, not NFPA 13R, is suited for single-family-home installation.] The sprinklers were costing us more than they needed to. [Matt Klaus, NFPA's principal fire protection engineer and Missouri summit presenter] was a fountain of information. He gave me a clearer picture of how to install sprinklers that I didn't have before. We were putting in backflow valves and overdoing other things. I now can install sprinklers in a new home for about $1,200 or less. They'll cost me about a $1 per square foot.
Prior to these installations, what were your thoughts on home fire sprinklers?
Honestly, I hadn't thought about them. I'm friends with other builders. There's one in particular who was opposed to them. Why? His only argument is that it's a conspiracy that the sprinkler manufacturers are trying to force installation just to add another layer of cost to my home. But if it's in the [model building] code, everyone has the same layer of cost. How does it put you at a competitive disadvantage? It's such an insignificant cost factor.
How do we get more builders to agree with your line of thinking?
If I decide to build spec homes, what's eventually going to happen is I'm going to put sprinklers in there. I'm going to do things that make this home sellable. Builders are like anybody else. They copy. What was their recipe for success? Maybe we should follow suit if his homes are selling. Granite countertops aren't required in home, but how many people have them in there because everybody else does?
Do you have more peace of mind knowing your tenants are living in sprinklered homes?
The last unit I built was [compliant with the American With Disabilities Act regulations]. Three guys in wheelchairs are living there with a caregiver. I see how quickly fire can happen. How am I going to feel if three guys in wheelchairs die in my house from a fire? Or a little kid? And all I had to do is spend a little extra.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Fred Durso, Jr., communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative.