Panel calls for retrofits to sprinkler high-rises

BY ROBERT P. MADER OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF CHICAGO A blue ribbon panel investigating a deadly high-rise office building fire here in October 2003 has recommended that all unsprinklered commercial high-rises in the city be retrofitted with fire sprinklers. Six county workers died in a locked stairwell during the fire at the Cook County Administration-Building( November 2003, pg. 1). The incident led

BY ROBERT P. MADER
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF

CHICAGO — A blue ribbon panel investigating a deadly high-rise office building fire here in October 2003 has recommended that all unsprinklered commercial high-rises in the city be retrofitted with fire sprinklers.

Six county workers died in a locked stairwell during the fire at the Cook County Administration-Building( November 2003, pg. 1).

The incident led to the creation of an independent commission appointed by Cook County Board President John H. Stroger Jr. Composed by four judges and a professor of architecture-at the Illinois Institute of Technology, it was chaired by Judge Abner J. Mikva, a respected former federal judge in Chicago and former White House counsel during the Clinton administration.

The consensus report of the commission states that the deaths would not have occurred if the building had been equipped with fire sprinklers and/or the stairwell doors were unlocked.

"The commission recommends that the city of Chicago move promptly to amend its building code to require that all commercial high-rise buildings be equipped with an automatic fire protection system designed in accordance with National Fire Protection Association Standard 13," the report states. It also recommends that the city impose phased installation guidelines for the retrofits that are similar to NFPA guidelines and that the city establish a firm but attainable deadline.

There are more than 80 commercial high-rises, defined as structures more than 75-ft. tall, built before sprinklers were required in 1975. There are more than 700 multifamily residential highrises in Chicago that are not sprinklered.

The report also recommends that Chicago dump its old and arcane building code and replace it with either the International Code Council's International Building Code or with the National-Fire Protection Association's Construction and Life Safety Code (NFPA 5000). The panel likewise suggests that Cook County adopt one of the model codes that would apply to unincorporated areas of the county.

"The county has invested heavily in a review of the tragic fire and the panel's conclusions are adamantly in support of stronger public safety initiatives, including the retrofitting of high-rise buildings with sprinklers," said Tom Lia, executive director of the non-profit Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board. "The report makes clear: If the Cook County Building had had fire sprinkler protection, six people would be alive today."

The commission noted that currently two sprinkler retrofit ordinances are bouncing around Chicago's City Council.

Following the fire, Mayor Richard Daley and Alderman Edward Burke introduced separate sprinkler ordinances. Daley's ordinance requires all commercial buildings be retrofit. It does not include residential buildings and designated landmarks. It gives commercial buildings until 2016 to comply.

Burke's ordinance requires sprinklers in all high-rise buildings, commercial and residential, and requires fire sprinklers to be installed by 2008.

For the purposes of the report, the commission said sprinklering of residential buildings was beyond its purview. Real estate interests have always opposed sprinkler retrofits in Chicago on the basis of cost.

Michael Cornicelli, director of government affairs for BOMA/Chicago, told CONTRACTOR that fire sprinkler industry estimates do not include costs for upgrading standpipes and fire pumps, overtime pay if work is done at night, associated electrical work, relocating tenants or forgoing rents, and demolition and repair work. BOMA/Chicago estimates that demolition of a plaster or solid ceiling and subsequent repair work would, by itself, cost $3.40 per sq. ft., Cornicelli said.

However, Jamie Reap, vice president/residential division of United States Fire Protection in Lake Forest, Ill., pointed out that the Chicago code already requires high-rises to be equipped with standpipes and fire pumps.

Reap testified before the Chicago City Council in January that the firm's estimate for a residential high-rise along Chicago's lakefront of $2.50/sq. ft. was a fair representation of current market value for retrofit with a nonaccelerated schedule and straight time labor. (Reap told CONTRACTOR that escalation in steel prices since January would change that figure today.) Based on a projection of a 20-year loan at 8% interest, Reap noted the cost per unit per month would be about half what a resident is probably paying for cable TV, $31.50.

Cornicelli also said that most of the unsprinklered buildings are Class B and Class C office space, home to startups, entrepreneurs and non-profits that can't afford high rents.

The commission noted that BOMA has said that retrofits would cost $10/sq. ft., but it rejected that argument. It noted in the report that the most expensive retrofit performed to date was the 1996 retrofit of the Union League Club for $4.74/sq. ft. The retrofit was performed at night and required cutting and patching of ornamental ceilings.

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