Windermere probably won't face sprinkler requirement

Apartment complex will stay largely grandfathered into 1970s-era fire code

Posted 1/17/19

A Winderemere apartment tower will likely not be required to install a sprinkler system as part of repairs after a deadly fire, city officials said. The apartment tower at 5829 S. Datura St. in …

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Windermere probably won't face sprinkler requirement

Apartment complex will stay largely grandfathered into 1970s-era fire code

Posted

A Winderemere apartment tower will likely not be required to install a sprinkler system as part of repairs after a deadly fire, city officials said.

The apartment tower at 5829 S. Datura St. in Littleton has sat empty since a fire on Nov. 17 that killed one resident, injured several others and left more than 160 residents scrambling to find new homes.

But because the renovations from the fire are unlikely to require the replacing of more than half of the building's interior surfaces, and are unlikely to exceed half the current valuation of the building, the city likely can't compel the building's owners to install a building-wide fire sprinkler system as mandated by modern building code, said Bill Tracy, Littleton's chief building official.

“Given the evaluation of the inspection report after the fire, there's only one wing that was affected by fire damage,” Tracy said. “The rest of the building was damaged by smoke.”

The building's fire code compliance is under a legal status called “existing nonconforming,” Tracy said. That means it does not meet modern-day code requirements but is largely grandfathered into fire code from the early 1970s, when it was built.

HVAC system outdated

The building also lacked modern systems to shut down the HVAC system in the event of a fire or smoke, according to a city inspection.

“(T)he return air system continued to operate for some appreciable time after the smoke was being drawn into the return portion of the HVAC system,” wrote city building inspector Martin Colgan in a Nov. 28 report that declared the building uninhabitable.

The system “should have shut down once smoke was detected at a fairly low level,” the report says. “These conditions constitute a violation of basic and long-standing protections required by the building and mechanical codes.”

The violation likely accounted for the pervasive smoke damage thoughout the building, Tracy said, but fell under the building's existing nonconforming status.

Tracy said he plans to work on compelling the building's owners to install smoke detectors and dampers in the HVAC system before the building can be reoccupied.

Owners not talking

Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the complex, has not yet applied for any permits related to the building's renovation, Tracy said.

Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis principals Stephen Tebo and Heath Orvis, said he was not sure whether the company planned to install sprinklers of their own accord, but said the company was “taking a hiatus on press.”

Tracy said he wishes the city could compel the owners to install sprinklers, which he agreed likely would have stopped the fire, but said that doing so would constitute arbitrary enforcement, which would “land the city in litigation in a New York minute.”

No sprinklers after previous fire

The fire was the second in two years at the complex. A 2016 fire in the other tower resulted in the mass eviction of more than 130 residents.

The city did not require the owners to install sprinklers throughout that building either, records show.

A letter from Tebo-Orvis sent to residents after the 2016 fire informing them of their eviction reads in part:

“While the building was in safe condition and compliant with code requirements when purchased by the current owners in February 2016, the fire damaged the mechanical elements of the building including the fire alarm and sprinkler system.”

The building only had fire sprinklers in the basement, records show. The fire was isolated to a fourth-floor unit.

“Due to the extent of the damage to these systems, most of which were installed in 1972, the systems may need to be repaired and upgraded to meet today's safety standards,” the letter continues.

However, documents show that the only upgrades to the building's fire sprinkler system were the relocation of two basement sprinkler heads and the addition of one sprinkler head near elevator equipment.

Routine fire inspections not done

The Windermere has not received a routine fire code inspection since at least before the 2016 fire, according to Tim Cox, formerly Littleton's assistant fire marshal, now employed by South Metro Fire Rescue.

Routine fire code inspections of multifamily buildings by Littleton Fire Rescue, which were once conducted annually, had been scaled back citywide in recent years due to time and budget constraints, said Tim Stover, Littleton's former fire marshal, now employed by South Metro Fire Rescue, in a December interview.

Even a recent fire code inspection might not have done much, Cox said.

“You can take any building in this city, and if we apply current code, I could write pages of violations,” Cox said.

Inspection records not requested

Cox said investigators are aware of eyewitness reports from the recent fire that smoke alarms did not sound until hallways were already filled with smoke, and that alarms could not be heard inside units.

Apartment buildings are required to have their smoke detectors and fire alarms inspected annually by a third-party agency, Cox said. Inspectors have not asked to review the Windermere's inspection reports, he said.

Asked for the inspection reports, Boian, Tebo-Orvis's spokesman, said they would have to come from the Windermere's office manager, Jody Naylor.

Naylor did not respond to a request for the reports.

The building's fire annunciator panel, which sends an alarm to the fire department in case of fire, had seen recent upgrades at the time of the fire, records show, and was functional at the time of the fire, Cox said.

Tracy said the owners have indicated they're amenable to making upgrades to the building's smoke detectors and smoke alarms.

Official to push owners for upgrades

The fire was ruled accidental, Stover said by email, adding that he does not plan to issue any other findings. The investigation has been handed over to insurance company investigators, he said.

Cox said South Metro Fire Rescue, which now provides fire service to Littleton, plans to resume annual fire code inspections citywide.

Tracy said he plans to fight for as many fire safety upgrades as possible before the building is reoccupied.

“Will it meet current code? It won't,” Tracy said. “But it'll be safer than it was, and I'll be able to sleep at night.”

Ultimately, the building's level of safety rests in the hands of its owners, Tracy said.

“Do you feel this building is safe?” Tracy said he would ask Tebo and Orvis. “How much money have you made off this structure, off these residents? Can you sleep at night?”

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