We’ve all seen movies where an evil code official shuts down an orphanage or derails someone’s hard fought dream for business ownership and prosperity. What the movie doesn’t show is that the orphanage was housing fifty one orphans in a basement with the only exit up a wooden stair or the kid in the wheelchair who couldn’t get into the rec center for his best friend’s birthday party because the only entrance requires walking up stairs. Building codes exist for a reason.
The purpose of building codes is to protect life and property. As much as a hassle it can be to achieve code compliance, if the building is executed properly, a fire will either be suppressed or contained to the area in which it started. The occupants will have one hour to exit in an orderly manner, and the firefighters risk of injury will be greatly reduced. News headlines such as “Miracle on Main Street, Fire Didn’t Spread to Surrounding Buildings” would be better put “A Building on Main Street was Built to Code”.
Unfortunately the path to building code compliance can be a complicated and expensive process, but there are some steps that a building owner can take to help the process go as smoothly as possible.
When researching a property, a crucial step is to contact the city’s zoning department before the land or building is purchased. This will help avoid nasty surprises and costly re-zoning fees. The seller of the property may not know the zoning designation or the implications of the change of use for the property.
Lets use the example of a small business entrepreneur who wants to open up a gym and finds a warehouse in an industrial area that inspires the grit of Rocky Balboa. It seems simple enough. The warehouse is built of concrete and steel and has plenty of extra room for a growing clientele. However, the change in use from a warehouse to a gym is significant. A gym has ten times the occupant density of a warehouse at any given moment, and since the occupants of the gym rotate out every few hours while warehouse workers stay there the whole day, the parking and traffic patterns of that property will change. A meeting with the zoning department will study the existing traffic patterns and parking and let the owner know whether existing conditions are sufficient or if additional parking, turn lanes, or even a traffic light will be necessary to keep the clientele happy and allow them to come and go in a safe manner. Let’s face it, no one wants to get in a traffic accident after spending an hour working out.
If the zoning is appropriate, the second phone call should be to set up an appointment with the building department. Continuing with our example of the warehouse being converted to a gym, the projected behavior of the building users as well as the as the flammable properties of the furnishings inherent with both uses is very different. A change in use from a warehouse to a gym would likely require more bathrooms, revised door locations, accessibility features (yes, some disabled people enjoy working out) and possibly a fully building sprinkler system.
Granted, a pre-submittal meeting with the building department will likely be filled with bad news of repairs or modifications that need to be made. However, it is much better for an owner to know what the issues will be prior to purchasing the property or beginning construction so that they can hire appropriate professionals to complete the work and have an understanding of the costs of the construction project. If the code violations are known prior to the beginning of a project, many times a creative solution can be found that enhances the project rather than expensive, unsightly patches to correct code violations at the end of the project.
A pre-submittal meeting accomplishes two tasks. It establishes a written record of the project between the owner/ architect and the building department, and it opens the lines of communication between the two parties. There is nothing more frustrating for a business owner than to find out that their business opening will be delayed due to a stop work order from the building department and not knowing the process to correct it, and there is nothing more frustrating for a code official than to realize that construction is being done in their jurisdiction in a potentially unsafe manner without having the contact information of the owner or a means of checking the safety of the work (The City can find that information out pretty quickly, so while tempting, this is not a good plan).
The building department exists to protect the residents and business owners of the city of which it presides. With clear communication and mutual respect, construction projects can run smoothly and efficiently.