Why The Veranda House Had No Sprinklers
Jason Graziadei •
Among the lingering questions being asked in the aftermath of the Veranda House fire is why the historic inn did not have a sprinkler system that could have potentially slowed, if not stopped, the fire before it became a fast-moving inferno that destroyed the building.
As Nantucket Fire Chief Steve Murphy stated publicly the day after the blaze: “There was no fire sprinkler system in the building and (it) was not required by code when constructed.”
Indeed, the original guesthouse dates back to the 1800s, when there were no automatic sprinkler systems. But the Veranda House has had multiple, significant renovations in recent years, prompting many to question why the building was not required to be brought up to code with a modern fire suppression system.
The Current this week reviewed Nantucket Building Department records going back years that showed the owners of the Veranda House pushed town officials to allow renovations without having to install a sprinkler system due primarily to cost considerations.
“We request that the renovation project move forward without installing a sprinkler system as the cost seems excessive,” former Veranda House owner Dale Hamilton wrote to the Nantucket Building Department in July 2007.
Nantucket Building Department officials, following a state law that gives them broad discretion in determining whether a building renovation meets a threshold that would require it to be brought up to code, granted the request.
Hamilton’s letter was sent prior to the start of a nearly $500,000 renovation project at the Veranda House in 2008. Hamilton said he had secured an estimate to install a sprinkler system at a cost of $210,000, about 50 percent of the entire project budget, “which appears to be excessive,” he wrote.
Six months later, in an e-mail to his engineer Ted Burnham, Hamilton once again balked at the idea of installing a sprinkler system as part of the project which included renovations of all the guest rooms, the kitchen and breakfast area, along with enlarging a service stairway.
“There is only a 7 percent reduction in premium from the insurance company,” wrote Hamilton, who owned the Veranda House from 2006 to 2019. “We are not in favor of installing the system at this time. We find the cost to be prohibitive as compared to the project cost of $460,000...I’m hopeful that you can deliver to us a Building Permit this week. We desperately need to get started. We can settle problems as they come up, but we really do need to get started quickly. We only have 100 days until May 1 arrives.”
Under state law (M.G.L. c. 148, s. 26G), sprinkler systems are required in buildings over 7,500 square feet that are undergoing renovations, but only if it is determined that the project includes “major” alterations or modifications. That determination hinges on whether the renovation affects more than 33 percent of the total gross square footage of a building, and/or the total cost of the alterations or modifications (excluding the sprinkler system) is equal to or greater than 33 percent of the assessed value of the building.
In the case of the Veranda House renovations in 2009, the inn’s project engineer, Ted Burnham, wrote to then-Building Commissioner Bernie Bartlett emphasizing that the project was not a “gut” renovation, and that “the cost of designing and incorporating the fire protection system in the building is substantial when compared to the work otherwise intended to be performed and the fire protection system should be not required by the Building Code.”
The Nantucket Building Department agreed, and the fire suppression system was left out of the renovation project.
Looking back at the decision this week, current Nantucket Building Commissioner Paul Murphy said “the permit was properly issued.”
Murphy said building commissioners in Massachusetts have broad discretion in deciding whether renovations of historic structures meet the criteria outlined in state law that would require them to be brought up to code.
“2009 was the one that would bear the most critical review for whether or not a sprinkler system was required,” Murphy said. “They went through the process, had a code review, had the pricing done, and it just wasn’t required. And that’s not unique for any old building. The building official has a great deal of discretion, and when the facts are presented to him, he makes a call like any umpire calls balls and strikes and decides whether or not it's substantial or not substantial, and makes the call on whether or not it requires sprinklers.”
In 2019, the Veranda House was acquired by its current owners, James and Elizabeth Procaccianti, of Rhode Island. They embarked on another renovation project at the inn in 2020.
While interior designer Giovanna Lucy, who worked on the project, described it to the Current as a “complete gut renovation and design of the hotel,” Murphy said the renovations were minor.
“It didn’t meet the threshold,” Murphy said. “They (the renovations) were just interior, cosmetic really.”
The building permit application for the 2020 renovations indicated the total cost of the project was $87,560, which covered the renovation of surfaces in all the inn’s bathrooms, along with new tile, floors, walls, paint, and fixtures.
Asked how many other historic inns on Nantucket remain without a modern fire suppression system, Murphy couldn’t determine a specific number, but said there are “tons of them. All the old inns and hotels that haven’t undergone these major renovations are un-sprinkled."
The litmus test for bringing historic structures undergoing renovations up to code was implemented "based upon the long-standing, fire safety principal that sprinklers save lives," State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan wrote in a 2009 memo to heads of fire departments across the state.
Still, as the Veranda House fire is believed to have started outside the structure, it's unclear how much of an impact interior sprinklers could have played in slowing or stopping the blaze (although there are effective exterior fire suppression systems available).
One Nantucket firefighter told the Current "Not sure if that would have made the difference with the fire load. It moved so quickly that the system would not have had a chance. Balloon frame, massive wood porches and covered in wood shingles. That's why most of those grand old hotels are gone."