By Phil Pennington, RNZ
A Wairarapa school will not have to fit sprinklers in a dormitory for 80 teenage boys after calling on the Government to back its fight with the local council.
Rathkeale College argued the sprinklers would cost so much it would jeopardise its project to upgrade the alarms and other fire protections.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment backed it against the Masterton District Council, basically forcing the council to issue a building consent when it did not want to.
The $2.7 million upgrade project, approved without sprinklers in 2021, has now been completed. It included making walls more fire-resistant, limiting the number of boys in each “fire cell” and an alarm that directly alerted Fire and Emergency (FENZ).
FENZ initially backed the council’s stance, saying the school’s assessment about what was practicable in its alteration work “has not taken into account that the occupants of this building are a vulnerable population (not adults)”.
FENZ later changed tack, though the ruling does not make clear why.
A veteran of building upgrades, whom RNZ agreed not to name, said his impression was that the ministry had increasingly been backing building owners in upgrade disputes with councils, especially over “big-ticket” items such as sprinklers.
The ministry rejected this, saying each dispute was looked at case by case, and cost was only one factor.
Building regulations demand that new school dorms be fitted with a Type 7 safety system, with sprinklers. But they do not require a renovation to retrofit sprinklers if it is not “reasonably practicable”.
This “reasonably practicable” interpretation is at the heart of wrangling over projects nationwide.
There is no guarantee the Government review of regulations triggered by the Loafers Lodge fire will look into this issue unless it zeroes in on the practical application of what are sometimes vague or confusing fire regulations.
The Rathkeale determination showed the college told the ministry the project was at a “tipping point”, and it had “no budget” to install $400,000 of sprinklers.
Sprinklers would not much help anyone escape, while its other upgrades would allow the boys and staff to get out within the required 10 minutes or less, it said. If forced to put them in, “this will impact on the college’s ability to progressively retrofit other similar buildings on the site”.
Rathkeale had two other dorm buildings.
A July 2020 report by the school said a “sprinkler system offers property protection, life safety, fire containment, and extinguishing within the cell of fire origin but comes at a huge cost of [$400,000] approximately.
“With this huge cost, the sprinkler upgrade works are not considered of tangible benefit as it does not provide any early warning to the occupants for life safety.”
The fire safety upgrade work was almost 20 per cent of the project costs; adding sprinklers “will clearly make the project non-viable”, the architect said.
The ministry listened: “There are compelling reasons to conclude it is not reasonably practicable to do so [put in sprinklers], including (but not limited to) the risk that the building work would not proceed.
“The occupants are teenagers, notwithstanding the adult supervision provided, and the proposed building work is a significant improvement on the current situation.”
The dorm will get to upgrade a Type 4 fire alarm system.
The council had said: “The level of safety provided to a building with a sprinkler system is far greater than one with only a Type 4 fire alarm.”
Cath Archer, chief executive of the trust that runs Rathkeale College, said the school’s current fire protection was to the highest standard, after it “amplified” advice from professionals, “providing more than required”.
“We were advised that fire protection would be compliant with the law through other measures.
“The advice ... for this particular site was to install several fire escapes, special wall linings, more alarms, clear processes and warning systems connected directly to the fire station.”
Rathkeale had limited water supply, whereas the boarding houses at St Matthew’s girls’ school in Masterton were on town water supply so had sprinklers, Archer said.
The district council was “satisfied with the outcome”, as was everyone else, she said.
The determination showed the school was not on town water supply, and the rural supply lacked the pressure to run sprinklers. This problem sometimes afflicts sprinklers in cities, too, where the water supply pipes are old or failing.
“The only (very expensive) option to provide sprinklers would be to have a large tank on site and diesel power pump,” a fire engineer said.
But the council responded that installing such things was common in rural buildings.
For the school, even space was a problem. The sprinkler heads might be as little as 2m off the floor, so boys might hit their heads, it said.
The council questioned the cost estimates, especially since the ceiling was being replaced, making it an ideal time to fit sprinklers.
Costs more of a focus?
The veteran industry insider said that recent determinations appeared to be placing more focus than previously on the cost and the owners’ stance.
The ministry “appear less likely to support councils who are pushing for a high level of upgrade”, he said.
“It appears that determinations are more willing to take an owner’s view and are willing to accept a lower level of compliance than council would expect.
“MBIE appears to be taking a ‘some improvement is better than none’ approach when it comes to high- cost items.”
The ministry rejected that, and said it had not changed how its determinations assessed the level of compliance that a renovation, or change of use of a building, achieved.
“While cost is one factor in considering what is ‘reasonably practicable’, it is not the only factor,” said Katie Gordon, national manager of building resolution.
It was “taking into account factors such as safety issues, complexity and whether a case has the potential to have broad sector impacts”.
There is one problem, however: the ministry was breaking the law on meeting ruling deadlines.
It was breaching its statutory obligation to process them within 60 working days – for instance, last October, it had 75 applications on hand that had exceeded that deadline.
New applicants for a determination “are being told MBIE is exceeding the 60-day timeframe”.
It was putting in more resources “and making operational improvements to ensure that determinations can continue to meet the changing needs of the building sector”, Gordon said.
Saving lives the priority - ex-investigator
The New Zealand standards for sprinklers aim to save lives by buying time to get out, rather than ensuring properties do not burn, according to fire consultant Tim O’Brien, who was formerly an investigator for FENZ and a principal signatory for certification of automatic sprinkler systems.
“Many systems are designed to control a fire, not extinguish or suppress it.”
On that score, success rates for controlling fire had been put at 65 per cent with one sprinkler and 90 per cent with five or more.
But they were “not a panacea for protection from fire”, O’Brien said.
“There are many potential causes of system failure. Loss of water pressure, obscured sprinkler heads, changes in storage, incorrectly closed valves, failed pumps.”
Buildings needed additional safety systems, too, such as the separation of rooms with fire-resistant walls.
Though expensive, “over the life of a building they are comparable to the cost of flooring such as carpet”, O’Brien said.
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