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In Praise of the Existing Building Code

Ecole Before + After

KWA recently helped convert this historic church rectory into an extension for the Ecole Bilingue in New Orleans. Without the flexibility afforded by the IEBC, updating this century-old building would have been far too costly for the school.

We are very big fans of the International Existing Building Code. This is a very special code that allows for flexibility in renovating and reusing existing buildings. One major challenge with any new code is that existing buildings often don’t meet new requirements. Retrofitting existing buildings to meet these new requirements is generally a more expensive process than constructing a new building. The unfortunate outcome of this process is that useful existing buildings are frequently left fallow and blighted because it is not worth the brain damage and added cost to bring the building up to current codes. Think about that for a minute: these are buildings (often historic) with tremendous intrinsic value that have been standing and functioning for over a hundred years, but are technically unusable according to current building codes.

This is where the existing building code comes in. It provides a lot more flexibility for a code official and building owner or architect to negotiate alternate ways to make things work. It also spells out how much compliance you have to achieve based upon how much work you are doing; for example, repairs require less compliance than alterations. There is also a handy chart that allows for flexibility with change of use. The table categorizes IBC occupancy classifications by “relative hazard”: if you stay within your relative hazard level, you don’t trigger additional requirements. This means that in many cases it is possible to change use without incurring prohibitive costs due to new code requirements.

use-hazard table

Table 1012.4: Change of use may not come with new code requirements, as long as relative hazard does not change

The secret sauce to using this code is the historic building designation. If you can get your building into this special class, it provides much more flexibility to come up with equivalent compliance options, meaning that you may only be required to spend some quality time with the Fire Marshal and Building Official to ensure you meet NFPA 101 (Life Safety) requirements. While we support safe buildings, we also support coordinated, creative ways to do this in conjunction with the Fire Marshal. We have gotten buildings certified as Historic in New Orleans several times with the sole purpose of using the designation as a negotiation tool with local code officials to reduce upgrade requirements or provide creative equivalents and put great old buildings back into productive use. In our experience, local officials have usually said, “We’re happy if the Fire Marshal is happy.”

One further important point: the current International Building code (since the 2009 version), has required fire sprinklers for all multifamily buildings. This means anything from a triplex on up, or anything in a mixed use building counts as multifamily. For multifamily, there is the option to provide a NFPA 13R sprinkler system instead of a full 13 system. This is a big deal. A full 13 system requires a dedicated water line from the street with new tap and fee, new sprinkler riser, and all the valves and gauges before you even start running galvanized sprinkler pipe and heads. In Atlanta, the tap, fee, line to the building, and riser often price out at $60,000-$70,000 before you start running sprinkler heads. That’s a lot of money. On the other hand, a 13R system is usually allowed to tap into the existing domestic water system without requiring all the separate infrastructure described above. It can also be run with PVC instead of hard pipe, further reducing cost.

One area of ambiguity in current building codes (IBC) comes up when you are dealing with a mixed use building, say a small amount of retail or office on the ground floor and two apartments above.  According to the code, the apartments have to be sprinklered, but the code isn’t exactly clear as to whether the commercial space then needs to be sprinklered as well. Technically you aren’t allowed to use a 13R sprinkler system for commercial use. So, if you are trying to renovate an old building to this type of use, there is a possibility a code official will require a full sprinkler system for the commercial space due to the residential requirements. The cost to bring a full 13 sprinkler system to the building is basically the same whether you have two units or two hundred. This is a cost that will quickly kill a renovation project, and it is a big road block to small scale, incremental redevelopment.

Enter the existing building code! This code provides a pathway to either completely avoid the need for sprinkler all together, or simply limit the amount of sprinklers with a 13R system to handle the multifamily portion of the project. As discussed above, the limits of reduction of requirements tie to the degree of alteration, and whether you are historic or not.

We constantly find that local government officials are completely unaware of the importance of the existing building code as a critical tool for redevelopment and reuse of portions of their town, often the cherished buildings along Main Street. In Georgia, the State Department of Community Affairs determines the required building codes. They have set a list of required codes, as well as a secondary list of optional codes. The Existing Building Code is in this optional list, meaning that your jurisdiction has to opt in to use this code. More and more, we are getting proactive in engaging with local leaders to lay out the importance of opting in to use this code. We see it as an under-appreciated and critical tool for enabling the revitalization of older buildings that provides a more meaningful and engaging alternative to shiny and new suburbanity. Whether in Georgia or elsewhere, we highly encourage you to see if your local town uses this code. If not, start pushing them to use it.


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