Members of the Oregon Fire Sprinkler Coalition have found a gem of a homebuilder. With 40-plus years experience in the building business, Steve Asher's forte is custom homebuilding and remodeling. Another astounding tidbit about this Oregon-based builder and president of Asher Homes, Inc.: roughly 75 percent of his homes are equipped with home fire sprinklers.
Why, in a nation with anti-sprinkler opponents mainly from the homebuilding industry, does Asher take a different tone? The answer stems from a critical, fire service partnership and the reality that, as Asher puts it, fire sprinklers in new homes "are easier than you think."
In an exclusive interview with NFPA, Asher discusses his support for this technology and why he's dumbfounded about his industry's sentiment on sprinklers.
NFPA: Describe your introduction to home fire sprinklers.
I grew up with my family working in the U.S. Forest Service. Forest fires have been in my life since I was born. I live on rural property and always wondered why people aren't doing more around their homes to make them fire safe. Many rely on the fire department. Also, in Ashland [Oregon] it’s very steep. Fire trucks can have issues getting into certain areas.
I'd do quite a few upper-end custom homes. When you start building larger homes in my area, it's mandatory to install fire sprinklers. But I also got into building houses for retired fire marshals moving here. They would tell me, "We’re putting in fire sprinklers." We're going through everything we need to do to build a house and I’m going, “Why am I not doing this for everybody?”
Are you always mentioning fire sprinklers as an option to home buyers?
Yes. While I don't install them in all of my homes, I suggest it and try to convince them to do so. While working with my customers and designing the home with them, it’s always been an option to bring up. People initially seemed against it. One, they’re afraid their whole house will flood. We have to mention that's not going to happen. Two: "I don’t like the look of fire sprinkler heads." I tell them there are now concealed heads. You have to convince people, so I take them into [sprinklered] houses to show them, and they forget they’re looking for fire sprinkler heads. They go, “This is nice.”
With my clients, I do a line item cost breakdown. I go through every one one of those items, and fire sprinklers are one of those line items. I ask them how they feel about fire sprinklers. Are they familiar with them? Understand them? We have a conversation about that. In certain situations we tell them that they should put in fire sprinklers. The technology is very simple.
Has installation costs been an issue for you or your clients?
The Ashford/Medford region has stopped charging commercial water rates for water [used for fire sprinklers].That was one of the biggest deterrents for my clients. I would tell them, "Then there’s $2,500 for a meter, and you’ll be paying 18 percent more for your water even though you’re not using it." I've worked with Marguerrite [Hickman, former division chief and fire marshal of Ashland Fire & Rescue] to address this. I’ve been adamant for years that if you get rid of this issue, you’re going see a whole different attitude towards fire sprinklers. And we are. [Changing the cost structure] was paramount in changing some of the resistance I had as a builder.
Where else do you think the homebuilder resistance to fire sprinklers stems from?
I can only think that for a lot of builders forced into [installations], it’s another pain-in-the-butt thing they have to deal with. I’m not your typical builder on that end of it because I’ve been involved in forest fires around my property. I know how dangerous fire is.
What do your clients tell you about living in a sprinklered home?
We do have conversations about that. I do follow-ups with all my customers. Most comments come from their friends who moved to the area in a home not built by me and say, "I can’t believe the builder didn’t bring [fire sprinklers] up. Why didn’t we get one?"
Since you have such a rich history of fire sprinkler installations, what would you say to the opponents out there?
It's a disservice not to offer sprinklers to a customer. We’re building a home. Everything should be about fire and life safety. We care about making sure our ingress/egress are the right size. Here we have a component of home construction that offers the most safety to its occupants. Why would you not offer it? I don’t really get the opposition, to tell you the truth.
Watch a public service announcement on fire sprinklers featuring Asher currently being televised throughout Oregon.