The kindest words Brian Conway can hear about his fire protection crew is that customers don't even know the contractors were ever there.

"A lot of people are afraid of contractors coming into their businesses and messing everything up," says Conway, executive vice president, Great Lakes Plumbing and Heating Co., Chicago. "But we treat a sprinkler retrofit job almost as if we were coming into someone's home and keep it looking the way we found it when we leave."

To do that, Great Lakes may typically work through the night to install the sprinkler systems, and also hire plasterers, dry wall installers, painters and even a janitorial crew to clean up - not just at the end of the job, but at the end of every day (or night) until the project is completed.

Founded in 1946, Great Lakes is a diversified mechanical contractor employing more than 300 people. The company ranked No. 54 in our 2004 Pipe Trades Giants ranking of the 100 largest plumbing and piping contractors. With pipe trades volume of $50.92 million, Great Lakes derived $18.7 million from fire protection, including new construction and retrofits.

Sprinkler retrofits are, by nature, difficult jobs even in the best of circumstances. But even those "best of circumstances" don't come any more challenging than when the retrofit is for an historic building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are more than 740 historic buildings in Chicago registered with the National Register of Historic Places. Upgrading these buildings to modern standards is one of Great Lakes' retrofit specialties.

According to Mike Jackson, an architect with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, improving systems in historic buildings requires significantly more coordination, time and effort because a contractor (and engineer and architect for that matter) must work within an often "irreplaceable envelope" of the original design.

That means plaster moldings may be too tight for structural fixtures to allow for room to work or hide systems.

To find out what may or may not be above the ceilings, one of the first things Great Lakes does may also be one of the smallest things it does. Cutting out just a 1/2-inch hole, the Great Lakes crew can then use special, flexible fiber optics to "see" how much room they have to maneuver.

Once some of the unseen details are understood, Great Lakes engineers precisely plan the system. After the system is designed, Great Lakes prefabs as much of the piping it can well ahead of the scheduled installation.

"Unlike some plumbing and piping work in which you can follow general drawings," Conway explains, "this is more like Tinker Toys. Each piece of the system comes pre-cut to a certain length."

Nowhere To Hide

Great Lakes faced many of these types of challenges in its renovation project at the Union League Club of Chicago, a prestigious downtown club constructed in the 1890s. The interior of the club offered no suspended ceilings to hide the fire protection piping, and elaborate, ornamental moldings lining the ceilings and walls in every room could not be destroyed.

Jim Griffin, Great Lakes project manager for sprinkler retrofitting, devised a way to side-mount the pipe behind the moldings. Because the type of piping normally used in sprinkler systems was too large to fit behind the moldings, Great Lakes pipefitters soldered small-diameter copper pipe as a substitute.

"We're talking about 2 inches of space for 1 1/2-inch pipe," Conway adds.

Then with painstaking care, the fragile moldings were cut into small sections and numbered. After piping was in place, plasterers and carpenters came in to reinstall and patch the moldings - back in the exact spots where they were originally situated.

Griffin consulted with a preservation architect to color-match the aged paint on the moldings to complete the patching.

Renovation projects such as these require extensive strategic planning to integrate the placement of piping into these historic treasures. At Chicago's oldest hotel, the Palmer House Hilton, Great Lakes' crew had to analyze the decorative and irreplaceable paintings on the grand lobby ceiling, the main focus of the area, to strategically place sprinkler heads. Color samples were taken so the sprinkler manufacturer could match the color of the sprinkler heads and cover plates to the color of the painting. Now, the sprinklers in the ceiling are virtually indiscernible.

In other cases, Great Lakes has to balance the difficult placement of pipe along with tight deadlines and coordination with other trades. Last year, Great Lakes wrapped up a six-year project for Chicago's Drake Hotel. Management would block out two to three floors of guest rooms beginning in December. That gave Great Lake about three months to get its work done by the start of hotel season in March. The hotel also has grand ballrooms booked years in advance for weddings and other key functions.

Other Retrofits

While the up-front costs of a sprinkler retrofit are high, typically returns on such an investment include lower insurance premiums, tax write-offs, reduced liability and increased ability to lease building space.

Great Lakes' expertise may come in handy for retrofits of historic buildings, but the company long has been a leader in retrofits of Chicago's commercial high-rises.

Unfortunately, many Chicago building owners and tenants are gaining a greater awareness of the plight of older buildings - especially following a deadly fire in a Cook County Administration building in October 2003 that killed six people.

In the aftermath of the blaze, the local press revealed that nearly 800 Chicago-area high-rises are without fire sprinklers.

"The volume of interest in retrofits is significantly higher than usual," Conway says even 12 months after the event. "Maintaining the integrity of these older buildings, and keeping them in compliance with current codes and modern amenities, are challenging tasks to say the least."

The phone at Great Lakes will probably keep on ringing, too. While we were putting the finishing touches on this article in early October, an Illinois state report on the Cook County fire called the blaze a "typical office fire" and blamed the deaths on a litany of mistakes on the city and county government, plus clout-heavy building management.

While our research couldn't find any direct parallels with what happened in Chicago and what could happen in other well-populated older cities across the country, we don't think that "city, county and clout-heavy building management" mistakes apply only to our hometown. In some cases, cities across the country have given residential and commercial high-rise management companies 15 years to install sprinklers.

In any case, a look at the latest report (this is the second) underscores a retrofit market throughout the country, particularly after the events of 9/11 stress the need for safety in the nation's high-rise offices

After examining the fire, the report cited the county's failure to install sprinklers as one of four "key factors" that "directly contributed" to the six fatalities. If even one sprinkler had gone off on the building's 12th floor that day, the fire could have been contained within five minutes instead of more than 1 1/2 hours without producing the lethal amounts of smoke, which is what caused the deaths.

Report author James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, criticized the city for having fire safety requirements that are less strict than state standards, which require sprinklers in all high-rises or an equally effective fire protection system.

Meanwhile, a plan requiring sprinklers in older commercial high-rises remains bottled up in the Chicago City Council.

"The effectiveness of automatic fire sprinkler systems in controlling fire and protecting lives of the occupants of high-rise buildings is unquestionable," the so-called Witt report stated.

The Need For Safety

A significant deterrent always has been the cost of fire protection installation. But Conway says sprinkler systems - in particular sprinkler heads - have changed and improved in the past 30 years. New advances in fire protection technology have created more affordable options.

Extended coverage sprinkler heads, for example, are most cost-effective because the system uses fewer heads to cover larger areas. Drop systems allow owners more flexibility to make future changes even after a sprinkler system is installed. Plastic pipe also is a relatively new development that costs less than metal pipe. (Although Great Lakes can't use this material since current Chicago city codes do not allow it.)

Owners also can save money through trade-offs, or design alternatives. Most building codes permit trade-offs because of the superior protection afforded by sprinklers. For example, if a sprinkler system is installed in a hotel, the owner may have reduced fire-resistant requirements for structural components and furniture, and could reduce the number of fire alarms by placing them in the hallways instead of in each room. Reduction in these requirements results in savings, and coupled with insurance savings can offset the cost of sprinkler systems.

"Sprinkler installation may mean adding yet another expense to the budget, but in the long run, it is an investment no business can afford to overlook," Conway says.