more than one way to get there

Are you 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 wonder what else you should be concerned about before signing 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 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.

One might attempt to force the building to comply with the IBC for new construction – that could be a challenge. How can one know that all of the building meets all the requirements for new construction? What happens if that is economically or technically infeasible?

Good news – there is a clear path to follow. It is Chapter 13 of the International Existing Building Code (Performance Compliance Methods). Years prior, it was also Chapter 34 of the International Building Code, but they consolidated that into the IEBC, a good move.

Ok, I’m losing you, hang in there, and I’ll try to keep it simple.

The building code acknowledges 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 IEBC Chapter 13, Performance Compliance Methods, 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:

“1301.1 Scope. The provisions of this chapter shall apply to the alteration, addition and change of occupancy of existing structures, including historic structures, as referenced in Section 301.3.3. The provisions of this chapter are intended to maintain or increase the current degree of public safety, health and general welfare in existing buildings while permitting, alteration, addition and change of occupancy without requiring full compliance with Chapters 6 through 12, except where compliance with other provisions of this code is specifically required in this chapter.”

The Performance Compliance Method is based on complex calculations evaluating life safety features against a minimum score. In simple terms, you get points for having or doing safe things; points are deducted 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 had had to have all of the features required for new construction.

Would this work for you?

I have only performed the calculation on two very large buildings. Nevertheless, it’s not trying to skirt the issue or to be unsafe. It just acknowledges the complexity, difficulty, and cost of making existing buildings achieve code compliance exactly like a new building.

Let’s look at a few recent projects’ examples of how this works.

As you see from line 1301.6.2, having a small footprint and an open perimeter where a fire can be easily fought grants positive points. This building is permitted to have 23,000 square feet per floor, yet we had only 4,213 square feet. Yea, bonus points.

Section 1301.6.2

Dividing the building into smaller fire-rated compartments is a means to gain points. A small building 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 1301.6.3. We aim to demonstrate we have fire zones of less than 10,000 square feet each.

Section 1301.6.3

A common situation we face is the code requirement for an automatic sprinkler system for multi-family residential occupancies, in this case, R-2 Apartments. 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 mandated in new construction. If you are considering creating a small apartment building from that large house, pay attention to this one. Each apartment was separated from the others with 1-hour fire-rated floors and barriers.

Section 1301.6.17

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 in the code book all along. 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)

more than one way to get there

2 thoughts on “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…

    1. 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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