Fire Code Hassles in Shop Remodel

Here's a cautionary tale: connecting two shop buildings trips the square-footage trigger for fire sprinkler requirements, and it's the surprised owner who gets burned. February 19, 2008

We purchased the building next door to us. There is 12' between the concrete tilt up buildings. Our current building is 7100sf, the new building is 5000sf, and there is 1000sf between the buildings. It was my intention to connect the two buildings by cutting a doorway in each building and adding new roof, cement floor, and walls to close it in. In good faith I went to the city to see if there would be any unforeseen problems in doing what I wanted to do. They sent out an inspector to the site and he said there did not seem to be any problem. The city asked me to get blueprints made up and have the project engineered. I did all they asked of me. I soon got the plans back with "code compliant" stamped and signed on the blueprints and building permit in hand.

We move ahead with the project. When we are about 3/4 complete, I get a visit from the county fire marshal. He asked me what I am doing and what my intent is. I told him I am connecting the buildings to enlarge our facility. I told him that I am not making any changes to our spray booth area, just increasing the space for manufacturing. I also told him that I have a building permit. He said, "Yes, I know, but we have a problem." He said, "You need to install fire suppression sprinkling systems in both buildings." I said, "Whoa, wait a minute, nothing was ever said to me about that!" He said, "Yes, I know, I just came from the city and asked them what you were doing and then asked them about the sprinkling system, and they said they didn't think about that." I was dumbfounded! I said, this shop has been here for 30 years. What about the grandfather clause? His reply was, "That all went away when you got your building permit. Now you need to bring it all up to code." I said I'm not changing the existing buildings, only cutting doorways in for passage. What about installing fire doors? He said, no, that won't do. It has to be sprinkled.

We are now done with the project. The city has done the final inspection and signed off on the project, but the fire marshal told our general contractor that he "absolutely will not sign off on the project until sprinklers are installed."

I got some quotes for this. To bring in an 8" main from the street and install the whole system is going to be around $50k to $60k. I don't quite know what to do. I can't afford that. That was the whole purpose of going to the city before I purchased the property next door, to see if there were going to be any problems with what I wanted to do. If I had known that in the beginning, I would not have joined the two buildings.

The building permit says that it is for the 980sf of addition that I am doing, not the other two buildings. My contractor is scheduling a meeting with us, city officials, fire marshal and our contractor to talk about it. I am not optimistic; I think his mind is made up. More importantly, I think this is purely a judgment call from the fire marshal.

Any suggestions? Should I find a good code compliance attorney? What a living nightmare!

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor H:
Are you changing the use of the new building you bought? If so, then you may be stuck bringing it up to current code. I would get an attorney that is code familiar. And research state code requirements. It is possible that if county overrides city, then state might override county. I have had more minor things where that worked for me. Have you changed your deeds to make the properties one? If so, again, you may be stuck. Things like this are more often than not a battle of egos and power.

From contributor R:

I would go to the meeting before you hire an attorney. Regardless of the outcome, you will still have to deal with the fire marshal and he may give you a hard time because of it.
You may be stuck with the upgrade. You will want to get some second, third, and fourth bids for that sprinkler system. I have a friend that owns a fire systems company. He said that a ballpark price should be more like $20-30k. If you can't get a good price from a local company... try expanding your area for finding a company to do the work. Many companies that do fire protection work are regional and work over large areas.

From contributor C:
A couple of notes... We have an 11,000 SF facility in Oregon, and were told that is just over the size that triggers a requirement for fire sprinklers. Just a 3" main line, though, not 8". Hydraulic engineering by the sprinkler company looks at water pressures, static and under flow, among other things, to set pipe sizes. I was under the impression that you could section the building with proper firewalls/doors, like you're proposing, and thereby essentially have individual smaller buildings. Having a monitored fire sprinkler system would help with insurance rates, more so if you have more value insured. This may eventually offset your investment.

From contributor T:
All of the above responses are good. But before it becomes more confrontational, perhaps just ask the fire marshal what it is exactly that has increased the fire risk in this situation (i.e., combined square footage, new use for recently purchased building, necessity to update entire building because of new connector hallway and current code requirements). Since it sounds like a subjective call on the part of the fire marshal, it would be helpful to know why exactly the sprinklers need to be added.

Ridiculous as this may sound, would it be possible to have the connecting hallway rebuilt so that it does not actually touch either of the two buildings, and thereby exempting you from the sprinkler requirement? I have seen some bizarre things over the years, just a thought.

Perhaps if you sued the city for negligence and have them foot the bill for the sprinklers, they may decide you don't need them after all. A difficult situation, to be sure.

From contributor A:
I think there are two items keying this - the combined square footage and the distance between the two buildings. I would see if the fire marshal/building department would accept fire rated doors in one of the buildings if you agreed to keep them closed. They normally won't waive this. See if they would accept using both buildings with the doors they have and you had a freestanding awning/rain cover. Did you change the zoning or readdress the buildings?

From contributor Z:
A lot will depend on your city, county, state laws, as they pertain to jurisdiction matters. While some local government officials work and play well together, others don't. The question will end up, who has final say? I would bet the fire marshal is using every statute available to him in an effort to make the buildings safe. His goal is to ensure the safety of not only the occupants of the building but also any of his people that may be called upon to fight a fire. In principal I do not disagree with his position. Your problem comes from not being informed of his desire before purchase and construction. Most building departments I have worked with have a review process that allows all interested parties to voice concerns before a permit is issued.

I think a cool and calm battery of questions and then a visit to an attorney with experience in this matter would help to solve this issue. Unless you are surrounded by incompetent people, something slipped way too far through a crack and it sounds like the building inspector is a good place to look for fresh spackle.

From contributor U:
I am sorry to hear your problems. This is what some have described as death by government. Every year they add new regulations/codes that make it incredibly expensive for us to operate and it all falls on you. Who cares about cost vs. benefit, it doesn't cost the officials a cent.

My new project almost came to end about six months ago. I thought I was going bankrupt instead of opening a new shop. The fire sprinkler was the last in a whole series of government dictated, unexpected expenses. And that was despite the tens of thousands of dollars we spent having engineers and architects plan and put their stamp on the project. If they don't know, how would I? Our situation was really, really bad. In the end an engineer involved suggested we call a certain county councilman who also is a business owner. We told him our woes. He made a phone call to someone at the county permitting office and within two hours I had my certificate of occupancy without a sprinkler. I would definitely speak to someone who may have empathy for your situation, have power over regulatory peoples' purse strings and able to help them do what is reasonable.