Decoding Building Codes

By David Kirk, AIA

We don’t have to look too far back in history for a real-world example of the importance of building codes:  In 2013, 1,129 people were killed in Savar, Bangladesh when an eight-story commercial building collapsed.  It was later discovered that the top three floors of the building were built without a permit.  The building was also being used for factories, instead of the shops and offices for which the building was originally designed.  In this case, lack of compliance with, and enforcement of, building codes directly contributed to the deaths of 1,129 people.[i]

The above example clearly illustrates how building codes impact our everyday lives by keeping us safe –preventing tragedies such as the one that happened in Bangladesh.  Similarly, my last blog post How Building Codes Can Impact Your Business Decisions gave a real-world example of how building codes can impact business decisions.  The bewildering array of building codes out there, each tailored for a specific building use or system, can be difficult to navigate.  In this blog, I’ll give an overview of building codes, to increase your familiarity with what you’re likely to encounter in a new building or renovation project.

Building codes have three distinct purposes:

  • Life safety for building occupants
  • Firefighting safety
  • Preservation of property, including adjoining property

Building codes generally fall into two categories:  The first category involves building types and uses, including assembly, business, education, factories, high hazard, institutional, mercantile, residential, storage, utility, and miscellaneous buildings.  The second category addresses the components of buildings, including stairs, walls, roofs, doors, mechanical-electrical-plumbing systems, and cooking equipment, to name just a few.

Four main factors are used to determine the code requirements that will apply to your building’s design.  They include:

  1. Height:  Building height affects the ability of firefighters to reach different areas of a building, as well as the time it will take to evacuate in case of an emergency.
  2. Area:  Similar to height, building area also affects firefighting and the ability to quickly evacuate.
  3. Use Groups:  An assembly space that has a high density of occupants who are unfamiliar with the space has different requirements than, say, a light industrial space, which has a low density of occupants who are mostly employees.
  4. Type of Construction:  Requirements are different when using potentially flammable materials, such as wood, as opposed to non-combustible materials, such as steel.

The “Use Group” factor is of particular interest to people buying a building with the intention of re-purposing it for another use.  For example, a building that is code-compliant as a retail space may become non-compliant if converted to a restaurant, and therefore require costly modifications.  This is to prevent situations similar to the real-world example from Bangladesh, where a building designed for offices and shops was converted to factory use, creating a life safety issue for the workers.

If you follow us on Twitter @tweetDNK, you’ll be among the first to know when my next blog is posted.  If the content of this blog was a benefit to you, please share using the share buttons.



DNK Designed Cincinnati Streetcar Maintenance Facility Featured in Business Courier

DSC_2169Chris Wetterich wrote a great article in the Cincinnati Business Courier today about the Cincinnati Streetcar Maintenance Facility, which was designed by DNK.

For the full article, click here.

The article praises the design for filling the space with natural light, a feat described as “tricky.”  However, anyone who knows DNK knows that we solve tricky problems every day.  That’s what we do.

DNK is delighted to be a part of this project that is so crucial to the advancement of Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, the heart of our city.  Thanks to the Business Courier for the great piece.

How Building Codes Can Impact Your Business Decisions


  By David Kirk, AIA, NCARB

Building codes can have a profound impact on your business or organization. Simply put, a building must comply with local, state and national building codes for the specific use or activity that will take place in a building.   For example, if you are considering purchasing a building for use as a restaurant, that building must comply with the requirements for an Assembly Use and meet local Health Department requirements. If the building was not originally designed as a restaurant the cost to make it compliant could entail significant renovations beyond interior design and restaurant decoration.


A few years ago a small religious congregation was looking for a building to purchase to hold church services and to grow its outreach ministries.  

The church leadership team found a building they believed would meet the needs and budget of the congregation. The property was zoned to allow the land to be used for the intended purpose, a church. So the leadership team purchased the property. Once the property was under their ownership they secured the services of an architectural firm.  Before starting on the renovation plans the firm conducted a due diligence study by performing a building code analysis. The analysis revealed that while the land was zoned for use as a church, the building did not meet the building code requirements for use as a church. To meet the requirements they were required to provide adequate parking spaces on the same site, provide handicap accessibility, increase exiting capacity (two exits were required from each of the building’s two levels) upgrade the building’s construction type, and add toilet rooms.

The congregation was upset because their budget was built with the understanding that they would purchase a building that did not require a lot of infrastructure improvements and the money they have would be used for cosmetic paint / fix up for the building. The congregation had to find additional financial resources to cover the tens of thousands of dollars needed to bring the building into compliance with the building code before they could use the building.

This case study demonstrates that building codes can have a significant financial impact on your business when they are not addressed early in the process of purchasing a building.

Did You Know ?

Hammurabi, who was king of Babylon some 2000 years B.C., formulated a very exacting building code. “…it stipulated that if a builder built a house and the house failed, killing the householder, the builder was to be slain….” [1]Today’s building codes are not quite as harsh as those that existed over two thousand years ago but the requirement to design building structures that are safe for occupants and the public is still at the core of the code.

[1] G. Driver and J. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, 2 vols (1952,1955)

_MG_8213David Kirk, AIA, NCARB      is Principal of DNK. He is a former City of Cincinnati, Ohio Building Code Official, with more than 35 years ‘experience interpreting, writing and enforcing building codes. In addition to practicing architecture, he consults on building code issues on a variety of public and private projects.

About DNK

DNK is one of Cincinnati’s leading boutique design firms specializing in architecture, interiors, planning and landscape architecture.  For over 25 years the firm has served clients – public and private, on projects in the healthcare, education and urban design markets.  We creatively balance people, economics and the environment to produce transformative, sustainable solutions.  For additional information contact:   888-771-2195

Cincinnati Streetcar Maintenance and Operations Facility


At the corner of Race and Henry Streets in Over-the-Rhine, the Cincinnati Streetcar Maintenance and Operations Facility (MOF) is taking shape. This key component of the new Cincinnati Streetcar system will enable the City and SORTA to keep streetcar vehicles clean and in good working order.

DNK designed the MOF. The MOF was a unique project since it had to be intricately designed around the functional requirements of the maintenance and operation of modern streetcar vehicles. The Cincinnati MOF is a facility that is uniquely tailored to the requirements of the Cincinnati Streetcar system and their custom streetcar vehicles.

The building has two service bays, which can be identified by their accompanying high-bay doors on the north side of the building. Each service bay features a “pit” that allows mechanics to easily access the underside of the vehicle. The Cincinnati MOF has a different type of pit in each of its two service bays, a “gauge,” or narrow, pit that fits between the tracks, and a wide pit that extends beyond the outside of the vehicle with the rails elevated on steel support columns. The wide pit provides for easier inspection of both the inside and outside of the undercarriage.

The wheel trucks are the support, locomotion, and suspension system of the streetcar vehicle. They support the vehicle body, provide stability, ensure comfort by absorbing vibration and minimizing the impact of centrifugal force when turning, and minimize track deformation and rail abrasion. Each truck has four wheels and tires on two axles, with two motors and two braking systems.

The MOF also includes a mezzanine level, providing workers with direct access to the roof of the streetcar, where much of the streetcar’s equipment is located. One of these equipment items is the pantograph, or the arm that reaches up to the overhead catenary system (OCS), which is the power supply for the vehicle. Offices, locker rooms, a conference room, and a break room are located under the mezzanine.

The streetcar storage yard sits immediately west of the maintenance facility. It has capacity to hold all five of the system’s vehicles when they are not in use. The entire site is surrounded by a perimeter wall or fence for security. Security is important not only because the vehicles are expensive, but also because the site can be dangerous to people not properly trained to work around high-voltage electrical equipment.

In addition to the MOF’s functional characteristics, DNK also had to carefully consider aesthetics. The MOF is located in the Over-the-Rhine historic district, which, according to the OTR Foundation, is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the United States. The MOF building does not attempt to replicate the nearby historic architecture, but rather combines some of the patterns of massing and fenestration found in nearby historic buildings with a modern look that better reflects the forward-looking nature of Cincinnati’s new modern streetcar system. By mimicking the massing and patterns of the historic buildings, the MOF fits seamlessly into the historic district without having to meticulously copy every detail of the existing historic architecture.

Facility Management Software and Security

“In an emergency I want a facility person sitting right next to me looking at live cameras, video or a snapshot.”

                Mike Wylie 

               Director of Public Safety

                Cincinnati State Technical and Community College

               FacilityONE Customer


Security and safety in corporate and educational facilities is in the news a lot now. The safety of employees and students is paramount and often minutes count in an emergency.  No doubt a lot of organizations are taking a second look at how their equipment and procedures would stack up if something were to happen.

FacilityONE software marries facility management AND security into a multi user multiple access web-based software solution.  It ties into camera systems (360 degree video)  with real time monitoring of devices so that IF something occurs you have the documented data to know exactly WHERE a particular room is and WHAT the room looks like.  You get this information by videotaping hallways, door openings – i.e. where the hinges are and in which direction the doors open, and any other particular information you think would be critical information for emergency responders in a crisis situation.   Life safety systems in a room or building can be documented and this information can be uploaded to FacilityONE SmartPrints, our web-based CADD document management system.

FacilityONE is also a work order management system and asset lifecycle planning tool for C-Suite reporting and analysis.

FacilityONE   Organize. Access. Transform


When Sketches are Better for Communicating Ideas

I ran across a blog post on Linkedin by Nancy Duarte that explores why it is sometimes better to present ideas in a rough, sketchy form than it is to present them in a polished form.  I’ve found this to be the case in my work, especially on projects where public and/or owner input is crucial in the early stages.  Presenting ideas with sketches or in a less polished form tends to convey the message that the ideas are open to discussion and revision, providing a better opportunity for meaningful feedback.  What do you think?  Does the level of “polish” in a presentation affect how you provide feedback?  Read the article and let us know in the comments.