Published on October 1, 2016.

Battle Royal

A hard-hitting investigative series details the tactics of the homebuilders’ lobby in its determined—and expensive—fight against home sprinklers

THE RECENT SERIES OF STORIES published by ProPublica on the home sprinkler opposition mounted by U.S. homebuilders offers a detailed, unflinching look at what can happen when public safety meets a powerful, well-funded lobby. One of those stories covered the sprinkler fight in South Carolina, including homebuilder influence that reached the top levels of state government. The following is an excerpt from that story, which can be read in full online.

IN THE SPRING OF 2012, U.S. homebuilders were celebrating a string of victories. In more than a dozen state capitals from Phoenix to Tallahassee, they had managed to block plans to require fire sprinklers in new homes.

Then came a threat from a place they thought was buttoned up: South Carolina.

It happened hours into a marathon session of the obscure council that sets state building codes. Some of the 15 council members who had gathered at the firefighters academy in the woods outside the state capital of Columbia already left for home. Late into the night, the state’s fire marshal, Adolf Zubia, somehow persuaded a majority of those remaining to support sprinklers by a vote of 6-3.

Zubia hadn’t really expected to prevail. Just as surprised was a spectator in the front row—Mark Nix, head of the state homebuilders association. The vote posed a threat to his industry. Adding sprinklers could cost builders thousands of dollars per home. California and Maryland already required residential sprinkler systems, but if South Carolina fell, other more conservative states might follow.

Nix locked eyes with the fire marshal at the council table. According to Zubia, Nix mouthed a warning: “You. Are. F----d.”

While Nix denies saying that, Zubia instantly found himself in hot water. Before the meeting even adjourned, his phone buzzed with a text. He was to report to the office of Governor Nikki Haley first thing in the morning.

There, Zubia says he was pushed to resign, the second state fire marshal forced out by the governor after advocating for sprinklers. And, soon, the code council reversed its decision.

A bird's-eye view of a sprinklered housing development in South Carolina with the state's governor, Nikki Haley, in a cutout talking.

A bird's-eye view of a sprinklered housing development in South Carolina. The state's governor, Nikki Haley (insert), is close to the South Carolina homebuilding lobby and has pushed sprinkler-supporting fire marshals to resign. Photograph: Homes Urban; insert, Getty Images

Over the last eight years, U.S. homebuilders have spent millions of dollars on an extraordinary effort to block a safety improvement that the writers of the nation’s model building codes adamantly insist will save lives. The industry’s campaign, conducted far from the spotlight of Washington, shows how a well-financed lobby can shape state politics in public and behind the scenes.

The battle over sprinklers has consequences beyond politics. While house fires have become less common, thanks to smoke detectors and other improvements, modern construction techniques can make new homes more vulnerable to flames than older ones. There is no reliable central source of national data on house fires, but a ProPublica review of state records found two people who died and dozens who were injured in fires involving homes built without sprinklers since the beginning of 2009, after they became a nationally recommended standard.

To date, industry groups have helped foil efforts to make sprinkler systems mandatory in at least 25 states. That includes New York, where last year a two-year-old girl died in a blaze that fire officials said could have been stopped by sprinklers, and Texas, where the legislature’s ban was retroactive, overturning at least one city’s plan. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie twice blocked sprinkler rules passed by the legislature. In Minnesota, builders got the state’s code change reversed in court on a technicality.

A close look at the fight over sprinklers in South Carolina—according to government records, emails and dozens of interviews—offers an unusually well-documented portrait of how lobbyists can get their way in state capitals.

Top Photograph: Homes Urban