by Christopher D. Howe
From a regulatory standpoint, it is impractical and often impossible to hold existing buildings to the same standard as new buildings. However, renovation projects can trigger requirements for substantial life-safety, accessibility, and energy performance improvements to existing buildings. When planning a renovation project it is important to determine early in the process the degree of code compliance that will be required. This article focuses on some of the common circumstances under which the greatest degree of building code, accessibility, and energy code compliance would be required.
Building code: The ability of occupants to exit the building safely is of the utmost importance. Therefore, the Massachusetts State Building Code requires, above all, that the proper number of means of egress be provided, that the means of egress be of the proper width, and that they be provided with appropriate exit signage and emergency lighting. The degree to which other upgrades will be required is dependent on the type and scope of construction planned.
Changes in occupancy generally trigger the greatest scope of code requirements. A proposed change of occupancy that would result in a substantial increase in the number of occupants (occupant load), in a substantial increase in the amount of combustible materials present, and/or introduces occupants that are incapable of evacuating the building without assistance will trigger the highest degree of code compliance. Upgrades to the existing structural system, fire protection systems, interior finishes, and upgrades to the arrangement and enclosure of means of egress may all be required.
A change of occupancy from an office use (business occupancy) to retail (mercantile occupancy) is an example of a change of occupancy that results in an increase in both the occupant load and the amount of combustible materials that are likely to be present. A change of occupancy to an Institutional occupancy (health care facilities for example) would introduce occupants that are incapable of evacuating without assistance.
In projects where there is no change of occupancy, the proposed renovation of a portion of the building that is equal to, or greater than 50% of the total building area will require the highest degree of code compliance.
Accessibility: The degree of accessibility compliance required is established based on the cost of construction in relation to the “full and fair cash value” of the building. If construction costs equal or exceed 30% of the “full and fair cash value” of the building, the entire building must be brought into compliance with the accessibility requirements of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board. Upgrades to parking, building access, elevators, and restroom facilities are among the most common requirements.
Following are two key points to keep in mind when determining the degree of compliance required:
The value of all work completed within a 36 month period must be considered; and, depending on the municipality, the assessed value of the building may, or may not represent the “full and fair cash value” of the building.
Energy code: The energy code requires the greatest degree of compliance when the building is changed in a way that results in a significant increase in the demand for energy. For example: the conversion of a warehouse to office space would likely result in a greater energy demand, and would be subject to a range of energy code requirements.
Energy code compliance is also required when the nature of the proposed work is such that there is the opportunity to upgrade the building without resulting in a disproportionate increase in construction cost. For example, if the proposed scope of work will expose existing uninsulated exterior wall cavities, insulation is required to be added to those cavities.
The code provisions applicable to existing buildings are complex, and in many cases there are multiple options for compliance/approval. The building code itself contains three distinct methods for establishing the degree of code compliance required in existing buildings. In those circumstances where code compliance is impractical or impossible, there are two additional options: the submission of compliance alternatives to the local building official, or application for a variance from the Building Code Board of Appeals. Your architect and / or code consultant can assist you in evaluating the existing building and the proposed scope of work, determining the applicable code requirements, and developing the best course of action.
Christopher is a principal at CDHA Consulting