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.

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