does the building you want exist? here’s how to find out

Are you about to buy an existing commercial building, especially with the intent to make changes to it? As we stated in a past post…wait. Besides the questions one should ask that we reviewed before, there are still more. Let’s explore one more. Is the building considered an existing building? You think I’m crazy now right? Well, that may be true, but this is another important question one should find an answer to prior to signing on the dotted line. Just because you can see and feel the building, it does not mean the code agency having jurisdiction in your area considers the building to be “certified” as being existing. Weird huh?

If you purchase the building and make absolutely no changes and use it for the same use that it was used most recently, all of this may be a moot point. But if you intend to make changes, change the occupancy or other renovations/additions, pay attention. According to most building codes, a reference to an “existing” building presumes that the building was built according to the applicable building codes at the time of its construction and the current building owner holds a legal “Certificate of Occupancy” validating that. In most cases this goes beyond the local municipality, city or township giving approval to occupy the building based on compliance with the local zoning requirements. The agency having jurisdiction (in my case the State Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) must give written approval (in the form of a certificate) for the property owner to occupy the building for the intended “Use” designated on the approved construction documents. I suppose this is one of those documents that if it does exist, it is stored somewhere in the back of your filing cabinet with you insurance policies and birth certificate. Oftentimes, one can contact the State or other jurisdiction to see if they have a copy on file. (…needle, haystack…get it?)

However, it is likely that most buildings or building owners do not have this certificate (it is either lost or never existed). Therefore it is classified as “Uncertified” even though the occupants have used the building so long or the use hasn’t changed that no one has questioned it. This is a common observation in my practice. So much so that owners are shocked that I even bring any of this up. I am told Pennsylvania is increasing its enforcement of this issue lately. This is the point of the story when people “shoot the messenger.” It’s ok, I have learned to duck.

So where do you go from here? I don’t believe I can answer that for every State in the U.S., but I will attempt to answer based on how the State of Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code (UCC) looks at it (at least my interpretation). I say this often, but hire an architect to help you through this process. These conditions are noted in the Administration section of Uniform Construction Code 403.28. The UCC statutes section goes on to skillfully complicate it further.

1. Seek approval as a new building – The construction code official may issue a Certificate of Occupancy if the building complies with the latest version of the building code (International Building Code – IBC) with respect to a plethora of categories such as the height and area limitations, construction type, means of egress requirements, travel distances, fire safety requirements such as automatic fire suppression systems, fire alarm systems, as well as accessibility requirements. There are many requirements to consider here. Did I say that I recommend hiring an architect to help you through this? Drawings will generally be required to illustrate all of these features. I’ve been told by a local plan examiner, that this is generally interpreted as a Change of Occupancy from “no” certification to whatever Classification you are seeking. In this case your existing building must comply with the latest version of the code as if it were a new building. This may require alterations to the building to achieve this compliance. Some could be costly.

2. Seek approval as an existing building – The construction code official may issue a Certificate of Occupancy if the building as it currently exists complies with the latest version of the IBC, Chapter 34, Existing Buildings or the latest version of the IEBC (International Existing Building Code). This does not mean you are “grandfathered” in. Chapter 34 of the IBC permits seeking compliance through an Alternative Compliance Calculation found at the end of this chapter. This is a tedious, but useful calculation that assesses many categories of fire and life safety features. It gives more latitude to find alternative ways of equivalent degrees of compliance. Please note, this calculation presumes you can meet the egress requirements as is or you will alter the building accordingly. If you can’t meet the egress requirements, don’t waste your time on the calculations. I have performed these calculations numerous times, so I can state again, hire an architect to help you through this. Drawings will likely be required in addition to the calculation spreadsheet to demonstrate compliance. (11 Oct 2011 follow up – for those of you in my municipality or region, here is another reference to how to achieve this. Click here).

3. Seek approval when making renovations or alterations – If you are altering the building, demonstrate compliance to the code based on item #1 or #2 above in addition to showing compliance for the changes you are making. Submit it as one big package…with a bow on it. This could require upgrades to parts of the building that are not being altered.

4. Buy a really old building – Under the UCC Act of Pennsylvania (902(b)(6)), “an uncertified building that was built before April 27, 1927, is deemed to be legally occupied until the owner proposes to renovate, add an addition, alter or change the occupancy of the building. The renovation, addition, alteration or change in occupancy must comply with the Uniform Construction Code.”  This is one of my favorite, especially to avoid the Change of Occupancy issue, but the onus is on you to “prove” the age of the building. This can be done through old photographs, the recorded deed or anything else you can drum up that can clearly validate the age of the building. Your grandfather’s testimony will not likely be enough…unless he is drinking buddies with the code official.

Yes, buying an existing building is a challenge, especially if you intend to make any changes to it. This list does not cover every situation nor should this post be relied upon as complete or considered a professional service. Often these requirements stated above are often triggered only when the owner wishes to make changes to the building. This is why your neighbor “never had to do this.” However, I still recommend that when you desire to purchase a building, you ask if this magical Certificate of Occupancy exists. It is worth the paper it is printed on. If not, think architect. It will make your life a bit easier.

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

does the building you want exist? here’s how to find out

2 thoughts on “does the building you want exist? here’s how to find out

  1. Jim B says:

    Good description! Now the goal will be for EVERY prospective landlord/ building owner/ tenant to read and understand this concept!

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