more than one way to get there

15 December 2011

Still set on purchasing an existing building? In the past we’ve discussed what to consider before you buy an existing commercial building. Look for a previous occupancy permit and be careful if you plan to change the Use or Occupancy. If you’ve made it past these hurdles, you may be wondering what else you should be concerned about before you sign on the dotted line. There may be real concerns like a gaping hole in the roof, the remnants of termite Woodstock, miles of asbestos pipe insulation or a VW Bug is buried in the basement with Jimmy Hoffa. Let’s say that’s not the case, but now you’re considering renovating this building (for which I congratulate you) but you are unsure if you’ll be hit with a barrage of building code upgrades. Do you have any options?

You just might…but hire an architect. Trust me.

There are two somewhat identical avenues to follow. One is in Chapter 34 of the International Building Code. The other is Chapter 13 of the International Existing Building Code (Performance Compliance Methods). Ok, I’m losing you, hang in there and I’ll try to keep it simple.

The building code seems to acknowledge that making existing buildings comply can be quite a challenge. It doesn’t let you off the hook that easily, and the word “grandfather” doesn’t appear. However, there are options or alternative ways to achieve code compliance. Starting in IBC Section 3412 Compliance Alternatives, there are provisions in place to determine if equivalent safety can be achieved or demonstrated without following all of the requirements for new construction. To be exact it reads 3412.1 Compliance. The provisions of this section are intended to maintain or increase the current degree of public safety, health and general welfare in existing buildings while permitting repair, alteration, addition and change of occupancy without requiring full compliance with Chapters 2 through 33, or Sections 3401.3, and 3403 through 3409, except where compliance with other provisions of this code is specifically required in this section.”

The Compliance Alternatives are based on a complex series of calculations evaluating life safety features against a minimum score. In simple terms, you get points for having or doing safe things; points taken away for having or doing unsafe things. It is not the solution for all buildings, but in my world where I work with many small but complex projects, I have been able to see projects realized which would not have been economically possible if they would have had to have all of the features required for new construction. Would this work for you? I have not attempted the calculation on a really large building. Nevertheless, it’s not trying to skirt the issue or to be unsafe. It’s just an acknowledgement of the complexity, difficulty and cost of making existing buildings achieve code compliance exactly like a new building.

Let’s look at a few examples of how this works from a recent project of mine.

As you see from line 3412.6.2 that having a small footprint and an open perimeter where a fire can be easily fought grants positive points. We were permitted to have 7,000 square feet per floor, yet we had only 1,500 square feet. Yea, bonus points.

Dividing the building into smaller fire-rated compartments is a means to gain points. If you have a small building, it may qualify for these categories simply because the entire building is less than the threshold size. In other words the whole building is one small compartment. See line 3412.6.3, our whole building was less than 5,000 square feet.

Another situation we faced is the code required an automatic sprinkler system for residential occupancies; in our case an R-1 Hotel Use. This presented a large economic hurdle as well as a technical challenge to integrate the piping and equipment. To test if we could be considered for an exemption, we took a hit of -6 points for this category. Fortunately, we had enough points from other categories to overcome the loss, thus exempting us from a significant feature that would have been required in new construction.

In each of these situations, we may elect or even feel compelled to advise our clients to consider including a safety feature like an automatic sprinkler system, but the code can acknowledge that under certain circumstances and conditions, the existing building is safe without it since other safety features are in place. Don’t look at this tool as a way to get out of renovating your building safely. It is simply a means of testing multiple paths of achieving code compliance against the feasibility and practicality involved in your existing building. It’s been there all along in the back of the code book. Did you know you had more than one way to get there?

If you are considering buying a building and it is in Pennsylvania, call us if you’d like us to do this type of analysis. If you are outside Pennsylvania, I’ll try to recommend another architect. This blog should not be used in place of consulting a design professional in person, nor should it be a substitute for having a professional review your particular project.  Any recommendations made within any posting are limited and do not qualify as a professional service.

photos are from photobunny’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

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2 Responses to “more than one way to get there”


  1. Lee! Great post! You make an excellent case for why it is a good idea to consult with an architect from the start. Lack of knowledge about these kinds of things can kill a project before they even get off the ground. Unfortunately the building code is so complex now that it really takes a specialist to navigate it all…

    • leecalisti Says:

      This option for existing buildings existed in the old BOCA code, but it seems from code officials that it was ignored. I found it to be a viable way to get projects built, but it took self taught exercise to work through each section. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it’s where we as architects bring value to our clients.


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