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A New Push Has Begun To Update Chicago’s Archaic Plumbing Code

Plumbing may not be the most exciting topic of conversation, but for Chicago developers, it is a big expense. It is also a burden made heavier by an archaic building code that favors expensive cast iron and copper fixtures over cheaper pipes made of polyvinyl chloride, a synthetic plastic.

But a group of developers, architects and city council members are pushing for a change this year. They want the Chicago Department of Buildings to introduce an ordinance at the May 26 city council meeting that would update the city’s 20-year-old plumbing code and allow wider use of PVC pipes.

Heather Morrison, far left, and her MAP Strategies team

Such a move would cut development costs and ease the permitting process, according to Heather Morrison, president of MAP Strategies, a firm that helps developers navigate Chicago’s sometimes bewildering development process.

“If you’re not directly involved in the plumbing code, eyes tend to glaze over, but it’s such a systemic problem,” she said. “People haven’t been paying attention to it because the city has had a lot of problems recently, but it is affecting so many of the developers we work with.”

That is especially true for developers who build affordable housing. Construction budgets for these projects can be tight, and lightening the burden of plumbing costs would help more builders break ground and could promote economic development in disadvantaged neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides, according to Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative CEO Ghian Foreman

“When I do a redevelopment project, the construction costs are the same whether I am working in Englewood, Woodlawn or Washington Park [on the South Side] or if I am working in Lincoln Park, but I can’t rent them out for the same rate,” he said. “We have six-flats all over the city sitting empty because of the cost of construction.”

Chicago has made a lot of progress in updating its building codes and aligning them with international standards. The city’s Department of Buildings made history last year by implementing an overhaul of the city’s 70-year-old building code. Many in the development community who pushed for that change had hoped to then get started on updating other portions of the city code, including the ones for plumbing and mechanical systems, but the coronavirus pandemic stalled those efforts.

Chicago’s plumbing code restricts the use of PVC pipes to residential buildings of three stories or fewer. But officials from the Buildings Department finalized a proposal last summer that would have permitted PVC pipes in buildings up to five stories and not restricted it to residences. 

Roosevelt Road Veterans Housing at 2908 West Roosevelt Road

The Buildings Department also created a pilot program in 2017 that allows builders to get special permits to use PVC pipes in newly constructed residences of four stories, or in the rehab of any existing four-story building. More than 2,500 projects were part of the pilot program, according to Morrison, and developers saved a total of $38M.

Roosevelt Road Veterans Housing at 2908 West Roosevelt Road, a low-income housing development for veterans on Chicago’s West Side, was given a permit to use PVC pipes and saved $372K on its estimated construction cost of $10.5M, she said. That’s about 3.5%, a significant amount for any developer trying to make a project work.

“Sometimes it can make or break a deal.”

Morrison added that although the pilot program has been useful, simply extending it isn’t the best option. Each builder who wants to take advantage of it has to apply for the special permit, which clogs the desks of officials in the Buildings Department.

“It takes them hours every week to process these,” she said.

Morrison is circulating a petition on about the issue and hopes to get thousands of signatures from Chicago developers, architects and others as a way to encourage the Lightfoot administration to put the reform on the city council’s agenda.

The Department of Buildings did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

Forty-sixth Ward Alderman James Cappleman said he supports the change, seeing it as a way to decrease housing costs, and he said he believes both the mayor and her Buildings Department want to get it done.

“They definitely get it, and we all see this as a way to bring down the costs of housing,” he said.

That doesn’t mean quickly instituting this change is a done deal, Cappleman added. Other groups, such as Chicago Journeymen Plumbers' Local Union 130, may ask the administration to take it slow. He said he doesn't know the plumbers’ position, but the lightweight PVC pipes don’t need soldering and in general require less expertise to handle, so they may worry reform will cut their paychecks.

“I fully understand that concern,” he said. “But right now, we need to do everything we can to reduce the out-of-control cost of housing.”