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Grand Forks fire department staff, builders at odds over proposed code change

A proposed change to Grand Forks' 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 adding 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 come in contact with fire, according to Fire Chief Peter O'Neill.

Studies show it only takes six to 13 minutes for burning lightweight construction to structurally fail. When 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 appeared before the Grand Forks City Council's safety committee Tuesday night to ask its members to keep the requirement in the code. The committee passed a recommendation to do just that.

"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 on Monday.

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Not everyone agreed with the committee's decision.

Local builders attending the meeting voiced their disagreement with O'Neill's request.

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 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.

Passing on cost

The conflict between the two groups also comes down to cost.

O'Neill recognized that adding 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, according to McDonald. 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.

Lightweight construction materials are usually less expensive than their counterparts -- another factor that has more builders using them.

Despite the increased use of the lightweight materials, McDonald said she was told by O'Neill, 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 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.

Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1108 or send email to