Fire ratings for renovation

In my last post about the City and inspectional services I mentioned the insane requirements forced on rehabs for fire rating separations and costs of sprinklers. It’s something I’ve had to hear about from people working in the city for years. My friend Bill Rain sent me something he’d written long ago, looking at ways to work some compromise into the system, so I’m sharing it here with you:

With any legislation, you need to predict what groups will be for or against. From our discussions, it sounds like your meetings with fire marshals’ have been positive. My experience has been that the fire unions and any groups representing fireman and inspectors tend to support any code changes that they view as “protective to firefighters”. The same for the AIA (American Institute of Architects) as they like complexity in the building code to support their members. Groups in favor will be builders, developers, ICMA (Mayors and Mangers), etc. As we discussed, I would structure legislation to effect buildings of a certain size (number of stories, height, square footage) as this will garner more support with small to large cities as they both have the same problem, what to do with small multi-story buildings.
Our discussion earlier was around the requirements for 2 hour fire rating. If you take a step back and look at what requires existing building owners to add 2 hour rated walls, this is usually triggered by a “change of use”. I have never liked the concept of change of use as it only looks at the last use. I have bought historic buildings that had residential on upper floors but was abandoned and when we wanted to bring residential back, was told by the chief building official that the building use is commercial and that mixed-use will be a change of use and triggers updated code compliance. As we discussed, 2 hour rating is not the issue if only drywall is required (less expensive). The bigger issue is 2 hour rating with full suppression (sprinklers). Current building code pushes sprinklers for everything. The problem is that most existing buildings don’t have the water infrastructure to support sprinklers. There is the economic feasibility from a cost prospective. These cost include new water service and tap fee (usually minimum 3 inch and a new, more expensive meter and billing rate), splitting the service for both fire and domestic, 2 new back flow preventers, the physical cost to install the sprinklers (anywhere from $1.5-$3 per sqft) and disruption to the existing ceiling and cost to repair.
My recommendation would be a new section to the building code that gives chief building officials flexibility to deal with these EXISTING buildings (new construction is different). The job of the chief building official is to protect human life. I have used the phrase “is someone going to die if we don’t do XXXX”. If the answer is no, then they should have flexibility. The biggest cause of fires in older building is faulty electric and fire started by vacancy. If you want to make a building safe, make them feasible that someone will use it. The new section of code should require 2 hour DRYWALL separated uses and primary egress, new electrical service or existing that has a UL rated panel and MC, romex or vinyl clad interior wire and 2 means of egress. Egress is a big issue. There are multiple issues here. Old stairs usually don’t meet modern rise and run requirements. If space allows, new WOOD stairs should be allowed to be built to meet the primary egress requirements. If space does not allow, the chief building official should have flexibility to look at the new upstairs use. If the use is owner occupied residential space then there should be a contractual way to shift liability to the owner/user. Primary Egress should be treated different if it is commercial and will have clients coming to the space. This does not get into ADA requirements but there should be relief if it is for owner occupied, non-commercial use. For second means of egress, stairs are not always feasible in many buildings. The code should allow for the use of fire escapes or fire ladders.
These changes should allow for many small buildings in downtown areas to be reused. I know your time line is tight so wanted to get some ideas into your hands.

The key thing to think about is are we protecting people or property with these regulations? And, if we’re talking about fire safety- an empty building is always a bigger risk of fire than an occupied one. Let’s focus on keeping and maintaining the stock and making it at least as safe as when it was built- instead of putting unreal expectations. By requiring modern electric service, up-to-code gas lines and mechanical systems, you are decreasing the risk of fire much more than by having empty buildings waiting for an arson. Never mind the fact that occupied buildings generate tax income, whereas vacant ones just create tax burdens overtime.

Practical solutions to protect our community are up to us. If there was one place where we should be evoking home rule- it’s to protect our downtown historic buildings before too many more succumb to the wrecking ball.

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