The Building Industry Association of Hawaii sent out an invitation Friday for a celebratory pau hana to mark a new law that continues to prohibit counties from requiring single-family and duplex homes to have sprinklers.

Within hours, a fire killed three people at the Marco Polo, a 36-story 568-unit residential complex along Kapiolani Boulevard. The building didn’t have any sprinklers.

The BIA cancelled the pau hana. But the fire at the Marco Polo has put the spotlight on Act 53, formerly known as Senate Bill 611, which makes it illegal for any county to require single-family homes or duplexes to have sprinklers for the next 10 years.

The Building Industry Association of Hawaii planned, then canceled, a celebration of a bill that prevents counties from mandating single-family homes have sprinklers. 

The fire has re-ignited a long-running debate about what sort of sprinkler regulations the state and counties should impose on any homeowners — and at what cost.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell introduced a bill Monday requiring residential high-rises taller than 75 feet to include sprinkler systems. Right now, the law exempts any apartments or condominiums built prior to 1975.

SB 611 dealt only with single-family and duplex homes — it has no impact on whether or not older high-rises like the Marco Polo install sprinklers.

But the debate over Caldwell’s new bill is likely to echo the arguments made for and against SB 611.

It’s a question of whether homeowners should be required to spend thousands of dollars to prevent potential tragedies, and whether raising the already-high price of housing in Hawaii is worth preventing loss of life.

Sen. Breene Harimoto, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods like Pearl City and Aiea, was the only lawmaker to vote against the prohibition midway through session. He told Civil Beat he wanted to leave building codes up to the counties, and was further persuaded after county fire chiefs told him that the material used on new homes tends to “burn faster, hotter and release more gases.”

“That really stuck in my mind,” he said.

The view outside the Marco Polo apartments after the fire that killed three people. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Harimoto said he would support retrofitting old high-rises with fire sprinklers, but understands that could be costly for condo owners, especially seniors on fixed incomes.

Gladys Marrone, who leads BIA-Hawaii, said the potential to drive up already-high housing costs is the reason BIA-Hawaii fought to get SB 611 passed.

“We’ve always encouraged housing affordability and every mandate really adds to the cost,” she said in a phone interview.

“We were deeply saddened by the loss of life at Marco Polo and hope that such tragedies can be avoided in the future without pricing more families out of housing in Hawaii,” she added in a follow-up email.

Strong Support For The Bill

Hawaii lawmakers first banned counties from requiring new single-family homes to add fire sprinklers in 2012. Morrone said at the time that there was a national effort to require sprinklers in one- and two-family homes.

The International Residential Code is a model used nationally. Since 2008, the code has recommended that all new single family homes and duplexes include fire sprinklers. Honolulu’s building code incorporates the 2006 version of the code.

“This will kill our construction and remodeling industry,” BIA-Hawaii wrote of the proposed mandate in a fundraising message. “It is critical to stop this insanity now.”

Hawaii’s ban on counties enacting the mandate was set to expire this year. Sen. Clarence Nishihara said he introduced SB 611 at the behest of the building industry.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell holds a press conference in front of the Marco Polo building after the high-rise fire. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The bill had robust support from various organizations including the Hawaii Association of Realtors and Habitat for Humanity Hawaii.

The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii estimated that for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Maui, it could cost as much as $66,116.34 to install a fire sprinkler with an upgraded water meter.

But the State Fire Council had a much lower estimate, suggesting that the cost of installation would be less than $10,000 for a similarly sized home.

The Fire Council, National Fire Protection Association and the Fire Fighters Association were the only organizations to submit written testimony opposing the ban on sprinkler requirements.

“This bill prevents the four counties from incorporating safe building codes particular to their counties,” wrote Jeffrey Murray from the State Fire Council, noting that 85 percent of fire deaths happen at home.

Gov. David Ige signed SB 611 into law. On Monday, Jodi Leong, a spokeswoman for the governor, responded to Civil Beat’s request for comment in an email that said, in part:

“This law was introduced because newly constructed homes today are already being built with better fire retardant materials and technology, such as hard-wired smoke alarms. This law does NOT apply to condominiums.”

The High-Rise Debate

Codes adopted since the the 1970s have required Honolulu high-rises to have sprinkler systems, but the rules don’t apply to older buildings.

Richard Emery is a lobbyist for the property management company Associa. He’s also on the legislative action committee for the Community Associations Institute of Hawaii, which has previously lobbied against proposed fire sprinkler mandates in old high-rises.

Emery is skeptical about imposing a blanket policy on condominiums and apartments.

“There’s not enough resources in the state of Hawaii to implement a widespread program or some widespread mandate to do it in a very short period of time,” he said.

Many homeowners in older high-rises are already burdened by high maintenance costs. Some are seniors on fixed incomes.

“Rushing to say any building has to have a fire sprinkler system is premature,” Emery said.

Caldwell said in a press release that he would work with City Council members to try to find ways to help owners of high-rise units pay for sprinkler systems.

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, whose district includes the Marco Polo, wants to do that too. She thinks Caldwell’s bill is a good idea and wants to see if the city could provide loans to residents who need help paying for sprinklers, or if companies can provide installment plans.

“We know it has to be mandatory but the older the building, the older the tenants (and) many of them are on fixed income,” she said. “You can’t do half a building, you have to do the whole building regardless of whether the residents can afford it or not.”

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