Do I Need a Sprinkler System?

“Could Be a Deal Breaker!”

I get this question a lot! Sprinkler systems can be an expensive addition to your building. Worst of all, it doesn’t add to the visual improvement inside your building. In my area, sprinkler systems are quickly becoming a requirement. I have projects in communities that require them no matter what and I have projects in places that are not yet requiring them, depending on what the improvement entails. Like all my code articles, sprinkler system requirements must be discussed with your local inspector, but here are the basics and typical principles to follow.

  • If you own a building that has 4 occupiable floors, you must have a sprinkler system throughout the entire building. This includes a basement if you have one. Therefore, a three-story above-ground building with a basement must have sprinkler systems on all four levels.
  • If you own a smaller building (square feet matters) where the main level is retail or office space and you have an apartment on the upper level(s), you must have a two-hour separation between the two floors. Having a sprinkler system on both floors solves this problem.
  • If you don’t want to put in a sprinkler system, there is another option in which you can achieve a two hour assembly. Provide two layers of 5/8” type X gypsum board staggered to the underside of the upper floor joists. Be aware that these two layers will not quite meet a UL listing, but the building official will often accept it. This gets you your one hour on the lower level side. I have been told, but not been able to confirm, that two layers of 3/4” wood board type flooring staggered, which is often used in older buildings, will provide a one hour assembly for the top side of your floor joists. Fill all the openings with fire caulk and you have a two hour assembly. If this solution doesn’t work, there are other, more expensive solutions that can provide a one hour assembly.
  • Based on the assembly requirements needed in the previous bullet point, you can see that the code makes it hard to work around a sprinkler system. It can, however, be done if you are willing to work harder to achieve the exceptions in the code. I believe these exceptions will soon disappear and a sprinkler system will be your only solution. The code certainly does all it can to encourage sprinkler systems, as numerous requirements become less restrictive when you have one. What is interesting however, in my opinion a downtown building of typical size and square feet cannot take as much advantage of a sprinkler system as a new building can. Therefore, the reward does not always equal the cost. We as downtown building owners are in a bit of a pickle as it relates to sprinkler systems.
  • I mentioned communities that I have worked in that do not require a sprinkler system if you have two or fewer apartments on the upper level of a two-story building. This situation is rare and will soon be gone. My perspective is that these downtown districts are in such bad shape that the community is desperate for improvements.