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Brandi Jewett, Forum News Service, Published November 29 2013

Grand Forks builders, fire chief at odds over new code provision

GRAND FORKS – A proposed change to the city’s building code seems to have pitted two unlikely groups against one another.

Fire department leaders are against the change for safety reasons while local builders want it to be embraced for financial reasons.

The change involves removing a code requirement that dictates lightweight construction should be covered by materials such as drywall. Lightweight construction is a general term referring to prefabricated materials such as particle board.

The danger isn’t in the materials themselves – most are considered strong – but what happens when they are on fire, according to Grand Forks Fire Chief Peter O’Neill.

Studies show it only takes six to 13 minutes for burning lightweight construction to structurally fail. If it takes firefighters at least five minutes to respond, the building is unsafe as soon as they step into it, O’Neill said.

“I’m just trying to protect my firefighters,” he added.

O’Neill asked the Grand Forks City Council’s safety committee Tuesday to keep the requirement in the code. The committee passed his recommendation.

“To me, building codes are about safety,” council member Terry Bjerke said. “On this issue, I’m going to have to go with the firefighters.”

The full council is expected to make the final decision on the recommendation at its meeting n Monday.

Not everyone agreed with the committee’s decision.

Betty McDonald, executive officer of Forx Builders Association, said she didn’t want to compare firefighters’ lives with the cost of building a home, but she said builders felt the requirement should be removed.

“Sometimes we get carried away with emotion and forget about common sense,” she said.

The most common place that lightweight construction is left uncovered is in unfinished basements.

Builders present at the meeting estimated between 40 and 60 percent of new homes built in the city have basements left unfinished. They also projected almost 100 percent of new builds feature lightweight construction materials.

The use of these materials has been increasing for the past 20 to 25 years, according to Building and Zoning Administrator Bev Collings.

Some of these materials that are considered very dangerous when on fire – such as products called I-beams – are not used often in home construction in the region, according to McDonald.

The same provisions are in effect in Fargo-Moorhead – and much of the rest of the nation. They’re part of a broad set of building codes that states and municipalities adopt.

Fargo Inspections Administrator Ron Strand said local home builders were initially upset with the provision, which he said was enacted last year at the urging of fire prevention advocates.

But once he explained the purpose and a litany of exemptions in the code, builders were “more comfortable” with the code’s requirements, he said.

There hasn’t yet been a push in Fargo to have them changed.

The conflict comes down to cost.

O’Neill recognized that keeping the requirement adds costs to homes but felt the increase is worth it to protect lives.

The average cost of installing drywall covering in an area such as a basement is about $1,400, McDonald said. She said builders try to keep from passing unnecessary costs on to homeowners, who would have to tear the material down anyway if they wanted to remodel the basement.

McDonald said she was told by O’Neill that, as of now, the fire department hadn’t experienced problems with lightweight construction fires.

“We’d understand if this was a huge problem,” she said.

Council member Ken Vein said he was interested in taking a preventative approach to the issue.

“We wouldn’t want to wait for somebody to be killed before we enact the code,” he said.

Forum reporter Kyle Potter contributed to this report.