Sprinkler Idea All Wet?

Don Procter

June 2008

If fire protection sprinkler systems become a building code requirement in all new residential buildings three stories or taller in Ontario, that building sector could be in for a bumpy ride. Sprinkler contractors in Toronto could find themselves over capacity, causing construction delays affecting the schedules of wall and ceiling finishing trades.

A shortage of skilled sprinkler tradespeople could add months to building completion time lines, some observers suggest.

"It could be that no one has enough people to do the all the jobs,” says Mario Fattore, president of University Plumbing & Heating Ltd., a major sprinkler contractor in the Greater Toronto Area, a city that continues to see an unprecedented highrise residential boom. "In the beginning there could be some problems.”

Those problems could cause a domino effect down the line, hampering schedules of finishing trades, says one drywall contractor. "Instead of taking a year-and-a-half or two years to complete a high-rise building, it might take closer to three years,” explains Bob Pirocchi, president of Toronto-based 4 Star Drywall (99) Ltd.

Condo high-rises are a mainstay of 4 Star, which recently completed a 39-story residence in Mississauga called One Park Tower. Currently, the Ontario Building Code only requires sprinklers in underground parkades and amenity spaces in residential towers.

Adding sprinklers to all residential suites would mean more work for drywall contractors, but scheduling that work could be a nightmare. Currently, drywall contractors install fire-rated drywall membranes prior to the installation of mechanical/electrical work. Once the mechanical/electrical work is completed, they return to install drywall. "If sprinklers are required, you are introducing another trade to the scenario,” Pirocchi says.

Most provincial building codes in Canada already require sprinklers—Ontario is an exception, which is largely why the government has held public consultations and information sessions across the province on the pros and cons to sprinklers.

Fattore says if the province pushes sprinklers into the building code, how much work his industry sees will depend on where sprinklers are specified. Living rooms should be a priority, but people smoke in bedrooms, and kitchens can be a critical space. "They might even want them in closets,” he says.

The installation and materials costs are likely to rise because of a sudden flood of work on the market. Project delays could be commonplace, he says.

Ken Spira, president of Spira Fire Protection Ltd., disagrees. His company does a number of multistory residences in the Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge region—about 60 miles southwest of Toronto. "If anything, because of the historical design-build concept by most sprinkler contractors, the increased focus that we put on coordination usually helps in orchestrating all the trades, thus speeding up the schedule.”

Richard Lyall, president of RESCON, the Residential Construction Council of Central Ontario, says the province would do better by focusing on tougher legislation regarding smoke detectors, not sprinklers.

"We think new buildings are safe,” Lyall says. "Any data show that there is a much bigger bang for the buck by doing something with smoke detectors.”

Lyall says the Ontario Fire Marshall’s office has reported that 67 percent of fire-related fatalities occurred in older buildings with non-functioning smoke detectors. "There’s no effort at all (by the government) to address this,” he says.

If the government pushes ahead with sprinklers, the word on the street is that sprinklers could be a code requirement by September 2009.

But one Toronto developer isn’t waiting. Canderel Stoneridge Equity Group Inc. has announced that its 75-story downtown Toronto tower, planned for a construction start in June, will be the first sprinklered high-rise condo in Toronto.

Don Procter is a free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.