Downtown Housing: Bringing Upper Floors Up to Code


I have yet to speak to a developer or property owner who doesn’t groan when asked about bringing upper-floors up to code. No matter how business- or developer-friendly a city tries to be, the long road to getting a certificate of occupancy is a complicated one that has caused a lot of grey hair. There often are creative ways to meet code and cooperative code officials who want to support economic development, but the bottom line is that safety standards must be met.

Depending on what a property owner wants to do, upper-floor improvements and permitting might trigger updates in code that the owner isn’t prepared for financially.

“When dealing with an older upper floor that has been vacant for a long time, you will need to make substantial upgrades, and when you invest in something and make upgrades, that triggers code,” says Mike Jackson, FAIA, chief architect of the Preservation Services Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. “The question then becomes what level of safety does it have to be and which code tricks and code knowledge can save you money so that you can afford to do the project.”

Change of Use

Jackson names “change of use” as one of the biggest triggers. If a project is introducing housing to a space whose last legal use was something other than housing, it probably will need major upgrades to make the space meet residential codes. Sometimes, as in the case where a space was originally residential, then was turned into an office, and will be changed back to residential, you have some leeway to argue for it being grandfathered in if the space already has a kitchen and bath installed.

The other big triggers are light and ventilation requirements of dwellings, fire protection and exiting. A long, skinny building that is located in the middle of a downtown block and has no side windows or light wells will be harder to adapt than a building on a corner. There need to be a certain number of exits, including ones that connect directly to a public right of way. For example, three-story buildings need two means of egress from the third floor.

In a change-of-use situation, fire separation between the first and second floors will get complicated, especially if part of the building is occupied and the owner has to ask a paying tenant to relocate during construction.

“One of the concepts of fire safety is compartmentalization,” says Jackson. “If you hold the fire in a certain zone for a while, there is less threat to the rest of the building. You will hear about two-hour fire separation between floors, but if you have a tin ceiling, you won’t get that rating.”

There can sometimes be trade-offs, says Jackson, where code officials will accept a one-hour ceiling rating by compensating it with sprinklers, higher alarm detection, fire suppression tactics, and exiting strategies.

Combining New Construction Codes and Old Buildings

When it comes down to it, new construction code and old buildings are a tricky combination. An effective tool for downtown is the International Code Council’s International Existing Building Code. Plenty of places online sell this resource, and you can check it out online. Some states also have written codes for historic buildings or codes for rehabilitations.

Jackson says the new rehab codes are written to make existing buildings safer with a mix of improvements in fire protection, detection, and compartmentalization.  This mix of items gives the designer some latitude in how to improve the safety while retaining existing features and while using new safety systems.

He recommends that Main Street programs work with their municipalities to adopt the International Existing Building Codes and the International Building Code so the community has both documents to use for compliance.

Regardless of which code your city uses, property owners and developers must work with code officials and design professionals from the start of the project so they understand all of the options and safety requirements up front.

“A design professional is a key helper. If there are only small or strictly cosmetic upgrades, you might not need an architect, but you will need one if there is a change of use. Architects talk about code compliance,” says Jackson. “They aren’t licensed to make buildings beautiful; they are licensed to make them safe and meet welfare requirements.”

When it comes down to it, code is about interpretation and your project depends on the professionally trained code authority in your community.

MSN-Jan-Feb13_COVER“We have good tools but we don’t always have good training,” says Jackson. “In small towns, they often don’t have a highly professionalized code office and they need architects and design professionals who know the systems and how they work so they can demonstrate the code officials that there is more than one way to meet code.”

For more information about downtown housing, including the latest trends that show a growing preference among adults from millennials to boomers for living in walkable, amenity-rich districts with small businesses, dining and entertainment options, a sense of place, and local charm, read the January-February 2013 issue of Main Street NOW.