THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT INTERPRETS THE RESIDENTIAL AUTOMATIC SPRINKLER PROVISION OF THE MASSACHUSETTS FIRE PREVENTION ACT

Published on: November 28, 2016

There is no question that construction projects can consume your time and resources, whether you are the person performing the work or the association commissioning the project. One of the biggest headaches can be navigating the labyrinth of safety requirements that may or may not be triggered by the project. For example, Section 26I of the Massachusetts Fire Prevention Act controls when automatic sprinkler systems have to be installed in existing residential structures of four or more units. Until recently, there was little guidance on when a rehab project triggered the requirement.

For the first time, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) interpreted the residential sprinkler provision of the Fire Prevention Act as it applies to rehab projects. Section 26I provides, in relevant part, that

In a city, town or district which accepts the provisions of this section, any building hereafter constructed or hereafter substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction and occupied in whole or in part for residential purposes and containing not less than four dwelling units including, but not limited to, lodging houses, boarding houses, fraternity houses, dormitories, apartments, townhouses, condominiums, hotels, motels and group residences, shall be equipped with an approved system of automatic sprinklers in accordance with the provisions of the state building code. . . .

In MacLaurin v. City of Holyoke, the SJC considered the specific case of Robert MacLaurin, who purchased vacant apartment buildings in the City of Holyoke for rehabilitation. 475 Mass. 231. There was no question that the buildings had four or more units, and thus section 26I applied. MacLaurin maintained that he did not need to install sprinklers because the level of rehabilitation was not substantial “so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction”. The fire chief disagreed and ordered that automatic sprinkler systems be installed. According to MacLaurin, the cost of installation of the sprinklers would be completely cost prohibitive, as is likely true with many rehab projects.

The case turns on what it means to be “substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction.” As the SJC points out, this phrase is not defined in the Act and because there is no statutory right of appeal under section 26I, unlike other provisions in the Act, there is no existing case law on point. Id. at *1.

In short, the SJC held that, to trigger the sprinkler system installation requirement, the rehab “must be so substantial that the physical structure is rendered ‘the equivalent of new construction’ i.e., in essence as good as new.” Id. This sounds simple, but it may take some parsing of the decision to get at what “good as new” actually means.

The SJC traced the history of the phrase “substantial rehabilitation” in the context of building construction and determined that it “has been used since at least the late 1960’s to describe a building that has been modified so extensively that it has been rendered essentially ‘as good as new’ with a concomitant extension of its expected useful life.” Id. at *6.

The SJC also traced the development of automatic sprinkler legislation and the structure of the Act itself. The Court pointed out that each provision, whether about commercial buildings, residential buildings, or nightclubs, developed separately, each after news of a devastating fire. Each provision is supposed to address the “perceived risks of fire” in the particular type of building.  Id. at *7. But, it is “only the commercial sprinkler provision and the residential sprinkler provision [that] contain a two-part standard requiring automatic sprinklers in new buildings and when a certain level of modification is made to an existing structure, reflecting their shared legislative objective of enhancing fire safety, while at the same time affording protection to owners of existing buildings.” Id. at *8.

In light of its analysis, the SJC concluded that the section 26I standard is triggered when rehabilitative work is so extensive that the building itself, considered as a whole, has been rendered ‘the equivalent of new construction,’ whether in terms of the materials and construction techniques used, the building’s systems, its market value, its expected future useful life, or other comparable measures of equivalence to new construction. Id. at *9.

When the rehab qualifies, “a corollary is that the cost of installation of automatic sprinklers ordinarily will approximate the cost of installing sprinklers in a comparable newly constructed building.” Id. at *1. The SJC held that its decision is “consistent with the dual legislative purposes of enhancing fire safety and protecting property owners of existing residential buildings from the disproportionate costs of automatic sprinkler installation when attempting to perform desirable ordinary repairs and maintenance, even if extensive in nature, to retain a building in a habitable condition.” Id. at *9.

With respect to MacLaurin’s case, the SJC held that it lacked a factual basis to conduct a judicial review of the fire chief’s decision and remanded it to the fire chief for reconsideration. The SJC noted the lack of assessment of the relative cost of the sprinkler installation compared with project costs and the lack of findings about the “extent of the walls and ceilings that were opened, replaced, or repaired by being covered with gypsum board.” Id. at *10. Taking into account the decision and the facts identified as lacking in MacLaurin’s case, it is reasonable to deduce that a fire chief will or should consider the extension of the building’s life, the market value, the types of materials and construction techniques used, the condition or change to the major building systems, and the cost of the installation of the sprinklers when determining whether a project makes the building “as good as new”.

Relatedly, the SJC addressed MacLaurin’s right to a hearing. MacLaurin argued he has a constitutional right to be heard by the fire chief and present evidence. The SJC did not reach the constitutional question, but held that a hearing was warranted in this case in part because the fire chief’s “orders clearly ‘exert[ed] power upon an individual in a matter of consequence’”. Id. at *11. (internal citations omitted). The Court noted that the right time for a hearing would have been early in the project when decisions could have been made that would have been more cost effective. Id. at *11, n. 47. While this particular part of the holding is limited to the facts of this case, it indicates the Court’s support of a project proponent’s ability to fully present the parameters of the project early in the process and receive timely feedback and/or decisions that will impact project costs.

While the MacLaurin decision may not provide all the answers, it does provide guidance in an otherwise open area of the law. The fire chief has certain considerations that it should take into account when evaluating whether automatic sprinkler systems are required in residential buildings, including and perhaps most important, the cost to the project proponent.

To obtain a copy of the MacLaurin v. City of Holyoke Decision [click here].

For any questions regarding this article contact Haley Byron at hbyron@meeb.com.