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CALIFORNIA'S SHBC: Fire Protection and the SHBC

The SHBC's Chapter 8-8, on Fire Protection, states in its first paragraph that its purpose "is to provide a reasonable level of fire protection...based primarily on life safety to the occupants and to fire-fighting personnel." Recognizing the primary goal of life safety, when does the SHBC require fire sprinkler protection?

  1. In every historical detention facility [8-804(c)]; and
  2. In every historical building whose construction, occupancy or use constitutes a distinct fire hazard [8-804(a)].

Under what circumstances may an automatic sprinkler system be utilized as a substitute for specific regular code requirements?

  1. Within cited limitations, sprinkler system may take the place of some elements of an approved automatic fire alarm system [8-805(a),Exception 2]; and
  2. On a case-by-case basis, in lieu of enclosure of vertical shafts and stairwells [8-809,Exception 2].

Under what circumstances may a partial sprinkler system, connected to the domestic water supply, be utilized as a substitute for a regular code requirement?

  1. On a case-by-case basis where historic exterior walls and/or windows would normally require alternative construction and or other protection, because of their proximity to property lines [8-806(a)]; and
  2. Where historic combustible roofing materials would otherwise be prohibited [8-810].

The foregoing specific listed circumstances are not to be construed as limiting other options. The SHBC is a mandate for the case-by-case evaluation and adoption of measures which will provide a reasonable degree of defense from risk, and assumes that, as a performance code, jurisdictions, engineers and owners will cooperate in effecting a solution at minimum loss of historic fabric or historic character.

Given the value we place on historic resources, it seems paradoxical to find in Paragraph 8-801 that, "It is not the intent to protect the property..." This language sets priorities, making clear that apart from insuring a reasonable level of life safety, there is a need to compromise where measures intended for property protection threaten or conflict with the preservation of significant historic and architectural features. Moreover, built into the SHBC is the latitude to pursue, evaluate and adopt any rational combination of materials and methodologies which will provide a reasonable level of life safety. Detection technology has permitted us to recognize that they, together with smoke seals, may now be a building's most effective life-safety combination.

That fire sprinklers-installed in a manner that neither threatens nor defaces historic fabric, and that can be accomplished within the financial constraints of the owners-are a distinct and highly desirable bonus, cannot be denied. But once a reasonable level of life safety for occupants and fire-fighting personnel has been established, anything beyond must be understood as a bonus, not a mandate. For this reason, there may arise circumstances where partial fire sprinkler systems-or even no fire sprinkler systems-may be appropriate, however otherwise desirable. And while we may not neglect the life-safety of fire fighting personnel, the safe evacuation of building occupants can almost universally be achieved by means of early detection and warning systems, most of which can be installed with little or no threat to historic fabric.

Finally, it must be recognized that, with respect to qualified historic buildings, jurisdictions are enjoined [H&S 13143.2(e) & 13143.5(h)] from generating alternatives to, or more stringent fire, panic, and related standards than, those which exist in the California Building Standards Code, which, for historic buildings is Title 24, Part 8, the SHBC.