Building code changes proposed

By Corene Brisendine

Firefighters and local builders disagreed on proposed changes to building codes at Tuesday’s city commission work session.

City code services officials asked commissioners for feedback on the proposed changes, which are based on a set of updates recently approved by the International Code Council,  a non-profit organization that creates a set of model codes.

The single item that drew the most controversy is one that would require basements in single-family homes with light-weight joists to have the ceilings covered in sheetrock. The current codes does not require unfinished basements in those homes to have covered ceilings, but in the case of a basement fire, the addition of sheetrock would give firefighters more time to search the house for people and get to more areas of the house before the floor collapses.

Brad Claussen, city code services director, said half-inch sheetrock would give firefighters about 15 minutes to clear a house before the floor is likely to collapse, and five-eighths-inch sheetrock would give an additional five to 10 minutes beyond that. With current building codes, the response time for firefighters to clear a house is about 10 minutes.

Representatives of the local firefighters union asked commissioners to adopt the code for not only their safety, but also to give them more time to clear a house. Tim Davenport, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2275, said firefighters try to respond to a fire within five minutes, giving them just five minutes to clear a house.

Local builders objected to the proposed code because it would increase building costs, and the increased response time is “negligible.” Pat Schutter, president of Flint Hills Area Builders Association, said that including the proposed change would price Manhattan “out of the market” because houses can be built “across the river” without the additional codes.

Commissioner Karen McCulloh said Riley County and Pottawatomie County do not have building codes, which makes it cheaper to build a house outside city limits. McCulloh said she tried to convince Riley County commissioners to adopt building codes, but was unsuccessful in the past.

Commissioners also were divided about the inclusion of the code. Commissioners Rich Jankovich, Usha Reddi and McCulloh said they supported the inclusion of the code because safety was more important than cost of construction.

“The cost of a house is not the same as the cost of a life,” Jankovich said.

Commissioner Wynn Butler said if the code was that controversial, then Manhattan should ban all use of light-weight floor joists, giving builders the ability to leave the basement ceiling uncovered, while providing more time for firefighters to clear a home. Claussen said floor joists made of solid wood allow for longer response times than light-weight floor joists, and according to the old and new code do not require the basement ceiling to be covered.

Mayor John Matta said he did not support any of the changes because the city adopts new building codes every three years, and it is not enough time between changes for builders to keep up with the codes.

He said while the codes helped give the city a higher Insurance Service Organization score, the builders should be given a chance to get used to the codes before the city changes them again.

Claussen said the ISO score for Manhattan is 4, which is a good score based on a scale of one to 10 with 1 being the best score and 10 being the worst.

He said the score has helped give property owners lower premiums on insurance, and the city is only a fraction of a percent from having a 3, which would put Manhattan in the top 17 percent in the nation for code departments inspected and scored by the organization.

“That fraction of a point would move us from what’s good to what’s exemplary,” Claussen said.

Claussen said his department would like the city to adopt all 107 changes in the codes with two exceptions.

Those exceptions are the aforementioned requirement that basement ceilings be covered in houses built with light-weight floor joists, and a change that would allow specific electrical wiring to be directly buried under a building without special covering to insulate it.

He said the second change would decrease regulations, but local stakeholders do not want the regulation decreased. Claussen said he spoke with local architects, landlords, firefighters, builders and business owners before coming to the commission with the recommended changes to the codes.

Commissioners asked city staff to provide more information on cost assessments, risk to firefighters, and an exact time frame for implementation if adopted.

The commission did not formally vote on any action for the codes because it was a work session. When the proposal is brought before the commission again, it will be for a formal vote.

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