I’m trying to make this interesting; bear with me.
As a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s I recall a fantastic campaign, teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic to children using songs and cleverly written videos. How many of us use those mnemonic devices today to remember important parts of history, math or English grammar (hopefully correctly)? I personally liked the one about the number zero.
Now that I’ve planted that tune in your head, allow me to address a common problem we as architects encounter with our commercial property owner clients. It has nothing to do with zero apart from the response I get from property owners.
There is a simple document (i.e. plain piece of paper) that is crucial as we evaluate existing buildings and guide building owners on their journey in the renovation or adaptive reuse process. It is called a certificate of occupancy; or in industry jargon a “C of O.” It is a certificate that confirms or validates that the building was built legally per the building codes in place at the time of construction. Typically, a building design is submitted by an architect or similar design professional, reviewed by trained examiners, issued a permit by a local municipality and inspected throughout the process of construction. When completed and a final inspection performed, a building official issues the renowned C of O.
This vital document is something every potential building owner should ask for from the real estate agent or property seller when considering the purchase of the building. Most of the time you’ll probably not find this document because it is either lost or never existed. However, I cannot stress enough how important it is in our day and age as a proverbial ‘line in the sand’ measuring tool for going forward in our evaluation.
If it does exist, then it becomes the basis of the beginning of our evaluation. We can be assured that the building was approved. This is considered legal occupancy. Therefore, any changes renovations, or additions that are planned begin at that point and play out from there. If this document does not exist or can’t be found, then it makes it more difficult for the architect. It makes it especially difficult for the building owner as their architect must proceed on the basis that their building is not recognized as an existing building (seriously – even if you can stand in front of it and see it or stand in it), but must follow a process or certifying (or re-certifying) the building – often with unexpected code upgrades required.
The degree of building code (life-safety) upgrades or accessibility (handicap) upgrades required could be greater if no such document exists. Let’s just say it gets complicated.
If you are a building owner, go check right now in that WWII era metal filing cabinet and see if you have this certificate. If you are working with a real estate agent and looking at commercial properties, ask them or the seller to consult the local municipality or state department in charge of filing such documents. Otherwise, someone will need to start from scratch.
If your project is in Pennsylvania, I can address your issues more specifically; in fact, I have written previous posts addressing some of the challenges to the process. We have many exciting projects on the boards (and recently built) and the designs are intended to offer a positive experience. What few acknowledge, is behind the scenes, we are also work through the issues stated above. It’s what we do as architects.
Photo 1 (altered by me): Disney Wikia