2008 NYC Building Code Impact On Townhouses

A new building code went into effect about 2 years ago now. Generally the changes were aimed at larger buildings, but a few things affect townhouses.

As I was writing up this post I got a call that our plans were not approved (for the 2nd time) and the issues were largely due to changes in the 2008 code. (Today is definitely a day when it feels like we’re ‘beating upwind’…)

Sprinklers

Possibly the biggest change in terms of expense is that most townhouses now require a full sprinkler system. Apparently the new code conflicts itself – part of it says 1 and 2 family homes require sprinklers, another part says they can be exempt. At one point I found the FDNY’s ruling that said that if the townhouse was being restored back to it’s original 1 or 2 family use then sprinklers were not required at all. However, once a DOB plan examiner says they want sprinklers (as in our case) there’s no way FDNY is going to overrule them and say they’re not necessary. Here are the part of the code that were cited by our plan examiner:

903.2.7 Group R. An automatic sprinkler system shall be installed in Group R fire areas. An automatic sprinkler system shall be installed throughout buildings with a main use or dominant occupancy of Group R.

Exception: An automatic sprinkler system shall not be required in detached one- and two-family dwellings and multiple single-family dwellings (town houses), provided that such structures are not more than three stories above grade plane in height and have separate means of egress.

Here’s a summary of the code in graphical format…

NYC sprinkler requirements for single family homesNYC sprinkler requirements for two family homes

(Source)

So we’re now stuck having to put in a sprinkler system. I’m not sure why, but our architect and his expediter were reading the code only the egress had to be sprinklered so he drew up sprinklers on every stair landing and between the stairs and the front door using “water walls” between the stairs/corridor and the kitchen and the living room. But as I was writing this I got a call saying the plan examiner wants the entire building sprinklered (which is consistent with the part of the code he cited). That could be cost prohibitive for us – so it’s potentially very bad news…

The reason why any sprinkler system is so expensive is because sprinklers have to plumbed with cast iron pipe. Copper melts in a fire. The problem is our connection to the water main may not be big enough to support the demand put on it by the sprinklers. So that means we may have to upgrade our connection to the water main or get a dedicated connection to the main for the sprinkler system. That’s major money because it requires tearing up the sidewalk and touching the water main for the street.

We need to get estimates, but the sprinkler system the DOB plan examiner wants will cost WELL over $100K. Now we have to figure out what can be cut so we can afford the sprinkler system. So we’ve hit a pretty major roadblock.

CORRECTION: The sprinklers turned out to not be all that expensive. It wasn’t broken out, but I’m guessing maybe $30K plus $14,500 for a new water main connection.

Smoke Detectors

A more minor point is that all smoke detectors in the building now have to be interconnected – so if one goes off they all go off (great fun when what you’re looking gets a bit smokey).

Egress Stairs

Another change is that the 2008 code now requires that the stairwell continue up to the roof. Typically the way townhouses were built was to have a hatch going up to the roof. Now you need a bulkhead with  a full 3′ wide staircase and a door.

27-375(i) (1)(b) – “Buildings exceeding three stories in height shall be provided with one stairway at least three feet in width enclosed in fire-retarding partitions with a fire resistive rating of one hour protected by FPSC doors leading directly to the street and to the roof bulkhead.”

That’s less of an expense than a sprinkler system, but if you’ve got original staircases the question is how to match the style of the current stairs on the staircase going up to the roof. And what happens if you’re staircases aren’t a full 3′ wide? That could be a bit costly – or you’ll have a different type of staircase going the last flight.

There is one good thing about requiring bulkheads – if you put south facing windows in the bulkhead it’s better than having a skylight. The problem with skylights is that they don’t capture much of the low winter light (when you want as much light and heat gain as possible) and they capture too much of the high summer sun – making the building hot and increasing your air conditioning bills. Bulkhead windows get the maximum amount of winter sun and heat (lowering your heating bills) and capture less sun and heat in the summer (lowering your air conditioning bills).

Energy Considerations

Another frustration that relates to the 2008 code is that the plan examiner wants a crazy amount of detail on the energy usage of the building. The code is pretty clear that there are multiple ways to prove energy efficiency. Our architect did one of those ways (using a goverment program that calculates energy efficiency), but the plan examiner said that wasn’t good enough. He wants details on every window, exterior door, and light fixture.

If Your Buying A Townhouse…

If you’re in the process of building a townhouse that needs a lot of work (or already own one) – realize the 2008 code will impact you greatly, as it’s affecting us. The townhouses you may be seeing that are renovated were typically renovated under the old, 1968, building code. You have to meet  a much more demanding standard now.

If you can find a townhouse that has plans that were approved under the old building code then you can use those plans provided the permits have been kept current. But if the permits expired make the current get them renewed before you purchase the property. But realize you’ll be able to make minor changes to those plans. Talk to an architect and an expediter to make sure you can build under those plans. If the owner can’t get the plans renewed, lower your bid price substantially to compensate yourself for having to meet 2008 code.

If you’re buying a townhouse without approved plans (the norm) make sure you overestimate your renovation costs to compensate for things like full sprinkler systems. It can get expensive to meet 2008 code.

22 thoughts on “2008 NYC Building Code Impact On Townhouses

  1. Hi guys. I’m a huge fan of your blog. Your work has helped me TONS in considering a house in Harlem. I’m sorry to hear about the sprinkler development – major let-down.

    I was wondering if you knew anything about the adc develpment across the ave from you – Ennis Francis Houses. I heard they were planning on further developing the property.

    Thanks.

  2. @Peter – Until you mentioned it and I looked up a little more about those buildings I never realized they had once been privately owned. I just assumed they were owned by the City. I’d be interested to hear more – and obviously I don’t know much myself.

  3. We just gave an offer on a building shell in Harlem. Now, we have to include another 100k for sprinklers. Is there any way around this?

  4. @yook – By far the best lender for Harlem shells is Wells Fargo. Wells has one really good rehab loan specialist that you should talk to – Michael Stein. Call or e-mail him – (212) 805-1055 or Michael.B.Stein [at] wellsfargo.com

    Our architect is going to file for a reconsideration to see if we can go without sprinklers, but honestly, I’m not hopeful. I doubt there’s any way out of having the whole building sprinklered.

  5. Thanks for the info, Jay. Could you let me know how much your sprinkler system will cost in the end? Is it really 100k? Also, I would like to see pics of these sprinklers installed when you are done. Is your architect planning a way to make these sprinklers look good with the interior of your home?

  6. You should have your Architect look into CPVC sprinkler systems – much less expensive than cast iron, and allowable under the NFPA 13 which is referenced in the 2008 NYC code. I’m not 100% on the applicability for you but it’s worth a shot.

    Peter Holtzman
    Downtown Group Architects
    Harlem Home Owner

  7. Ennis Francis is still privately owned, actually. ADC is a non-profit, but it’s not the govt (only slightly more efficient). Happy to share what I know about the blocks. peteridavis-at-gmail

  8. @Peter Holzman – Thanks so much for calling our attention to CPVC sprinklers. “BlazeMaster” seems to be legal and lower cost alternative. Now if we could just use something like BlazeMaster for drain pipes 🙂

  9. @Yook – I had seen that document early on in my search. It’s not correct. The code conflicts itself and they’ve standardized on the part with stricter requirements. If you have an attached building it needs to be fully sprinklered.

  10. I’m looking into buying a 2 family less then 3 story high zoned c-81 property, we would like to possibly put a take out restaurant on the main floor. My qustion is does the building dept require a sprinkler system throughout the whole house or just the main floor or due I need one at all, its not new constuction I’m being told less the 17 chairs and you don’t need a system. Anyone that can help I would greatly appreciate it

  11. @Rob – You should consult an architect who’s familiar with the recent changes. Throwing a restaurant into the mix puts it beyond what I’m familiar with.

  12. Jay,

    Nice blog. It’s been several months since someone has commented on this topic so please allow me to share my story. I own a 2-family brick semi-attached dwelling, 3 stories in height and has a basement apartment (3 apartments in total). The basement apartment has a potential of an additonal $1000 in rental income. So, naturally, we hired an architect and an expediter to file a AltType1 with the DoB. Just like your architect, the code verbiage is confusing and he drew up plans to sprinkler the egress and egress stair only since each floor was occupied by ONE family per floor. The Plan Examiner saw this and rejected the plans stating the entire building needed to be sprinklered. Our water main pipe from the city was 1 and 3/4″ so we needed to either upgrade the existing to a larger 3″ pipe if we wanted the sprinkler to tap off the domestic line OR install a dedicated line for the sprinkler – either way, the sidewalk needed to be dug up! Due to the cost of the renovation, we had no choice but to forego the basement apartment and turn it into storage units for the existing tenants. Although it doesn’t bring in the $1000/mo., it does bring in a third of that amount plus my taxes and insurance remained exactly the same.

    Question: How many heads did you’re Master Plumber design for your situation and did you end up using the BlazeMaster piping? How much was your overall cost to install the sprinkler?

    • Nick – We wound up with 39 sprinkler heads – all black pipe – no CPVC. I’m not sure the cost – it wasn’t a separate line item.

      Honestly, I’m horribly confused about code these days. In the end we’re filing under 1938 code – but then on other things we seem to have to be up to current code. It’s really best to have an architect and code specialist figure it out. I think we might have even been able to get away with no sprinklers if we had a 3 hour fire rated concrete floor between basement and parlor.

      But honestly I wouldn’t want to live in a quadraplex that isn’t pretty fully sprinklered. I know I always felt a bit uneasy in our old 1939 coop that wasn’t sprinklered. I’ve seen real estate clients have the same reaction with unsprinklered buildings. They’ll overlook it if they’re in love with the place, but if they have any misgivings about a house they jump on the no sprinklers as a reason why they’d never buy the place.

  13. I just noticed the dates on the replies. By now you probably all know that here a few options to reduce cost. That is using CPVC instead of shed 40 black steel. And the branch piping can be 3/4″ instead of 1″. I have been design sprinkler systems for over 20 years and I NEVER specified cast iron. It has always been black steel, shed. 10 or sched. 40 depending on the pipe size requirement.
    In addition, what does the plan examiner have to do with any of this? He/she can give recommendations, and the voiced requirements come from either the DOB or the city fire marshal.

    • I’m guessing you have never worked in NYC, I too know about the cpvc and better still I think wirsbos pex system but I dont think theres a chance in hell you could get the dob to consider it. The plan examiner is the DOB employee that has the power equivalent to the divine right of kings in our Byzantine system our code is an amalgamation of literally parts of dozens of codes that under god knows what circumstances apply or not. no one really knows or could know, so what the examiner wants the examiner gets.

      • Michael – CPVC is legal for some smaller buildings in NYC. The plan examiners will approve it. The problem is finding a plumber who will install it. Most prefer black pipe since it’s what they deal with day in and day out on most other projects.

  14. Jay,

    Hoping that you may be able to reply to my query…
    Did your architect attempt to get a determination ? Based on your thread it looks like you wound up installing the sprinkler system, but did you eventually decide to sprinkler the building anyway or was your determination denied and under what basis?
    I have a situation where I changing my C of O from a two family with 4 furnished rooms to a two family. Building is 3 & basement attached brownstone. Examiner is telling us that if I convert to a 3 family we won’t need sprinklers but if we go from a 2 + furnished rooms to a 2 family we need sprinklers. He is basing it on the fact that we would be converting from a R-2 occupancy to R-3 whereas if we do 3 family we would be going from R-2 to R-2 so no change in occupancy group would not require sprinklers if you did not have them to begin with. Can’t make this stuff up.

  15. So if i have a c of o that is 2 family would i have to do ada rules if i wanted to convert to a 3 or 4 unit brownstone?

    thanks any help would be greatly appreciated!

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