Incorporating Educational Occupancies into Your Mixed-use Facility

by Christopher Howe

Christopher Howe

Christopher Howe

Are you considering including a child care center in your new office or residential development?  Has a college or university expressed interest in leasing space in your existing facility?  What are the building code implications of locating these educational uses in a building that is otherwise primarily office, retail, or residential space?

From a regulatory standpoint, not all educational occupancies are the same.  In fact, to avoid confusion, it is best to avoid using the term “educational occupancies” for this general discussion, as the building code considers many learning environments to be business or institutional occupancies.

The code requirements for learning environments vary widely depending on a number of factors including: the age of the students, the number of students (occupant load), location in the building, and the arrangement of the exits (means of egress).  It is important to consider all of these factors, as early as possible in the project planning process if you are considering including a learning environment in your new or existing mixed use facility.

The first step in determining the building code requirements is to properly classify the occupancy, as the majority of the applicable building code requirements are based on the occupancy classification.

Infants are fully dependent on adults.  They have no ability to exit the building under their own power, and are therefore considered “incapable of self-preservation”.  For this reason, the building code assigns an institutional (I-4) occupancy classification to child care centers that serve children two years nine months younger.  The stringent code requirements associated with the I-4 occupancy are intended to provide additional protection from smoke and fire and additional time to allow the teachers to evacuate young children.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the adult occupants of a college or university.  Most adults are fully capable of “self preservation”.  The building code assigns a much less stringent Business (B) classification to learning environments that serve students above the 12th grade.

The Educational (E) occupancy classification applies to learning environments serving students that are between the two extremes described above.  For example, child care centers serving only children that are older than two years nine months of age are classified as group E occupancies.  Traditional learning environments such as schools (serving children through the 12th grade) are also classified as group E occupancies.  Typically, the occupants of a facility classified as group E have the ability to walk unassisted, but may require some direction and assistance in exiting the building.

Another significant factor that the building code takes into consideration is the anticipated occupant load (number of occupants per square foot of space) of the learning environment.


As discussed above, adult learning environments are classified as group B occupancies.  However, in some cases, large lecture halls or other gathering spaces included within an adult learning environment must be classified as group A3 Assembly spaces.  Generally this is the case if the occupant load of the room exceeds 50 persons, or the area of the room exceeds 750 square feet.

On the other hand, when an occupancy is classified as a group E occupancy it is assumed that there will be spaces with large occupant loads (such as lecture halls or auditoriums) contained within the occupancy.  The code requirements applicable to group E occupancies have been developed based on this assumption.  Therefore these high occupancy spaces need not be assigned a separate occupancy classification from the larger educational E occupancy.

The code requirements limiting the size and story location (1st floor versus 5th floor) of educational occupancies, separation from other occupancies within the building, the number of exits, and exit travel distance are all dependent on the occupancy classification.  Generally, the code requirements are more stringent for those occupancies where the occupants are incapable of self-preservation or where a particularly dense occupant load is anticipated.  The four occupancy classifications discussed above, listed in order of the stringency of the code requirements are:

Business – group B:  Adult learning environments.

Educational – group E:  Child care serving children older than 2 years 9 months of age, and schools serving students through grade 12.

Assembly  – group A:  Large lecture halls within adult learning environments.

Institutional – group I-4:  Child care serving children 2 years 9 months of age, and younger.

The difficulty in incorporating these occupancies into a mixed use facility will vary depending on how similar, or different they are from the main occupancy of the building.  For example:  Incorporating an adult learning environment into an office building will present few challenges, as both occupancies are group B business occupancies.  The incorporation of a group I-4 child care center into the same office building will be considerably more difficult, and will require considerably more planning and forethought.

The building code provisions applicable to learning environments are complex, and in many cases there are multiple options and exceptions to consider.  For example: in some cases the building code will allow small learning environments to be classified as “accessory” to the main occupancy of the building.  The code requirements for accessory occupancies are considerably less stringent than non-accessory occupancies.   Your architect and / or code consultant can assist you in classifying the occupancy, determining the applicable code requirements, and developing the best course of action.

Christopher D. Howe, AIA, CBO, CCS, is   Architectural Consulting, Code Consulting & Architectural Specifications