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The Georgia Trust Building and Fire Code Project 

12-09-2015 17:35

In September of 1984, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation received a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation`s Critical Issues Fund to conduct a project concerning the application of building and fire codes to existing buildings. Current codes have been written for new construction, yet approximately one-half of the current construction industry is rehabilitation. Since older structures are rarely able to meet all the requirements of the current building and fire codes, building officials are put in the awkward position of either approving rehabilitation projects which do not meet the letter of the code and exposing themselves to liability litigation, or withholding approval altogether. In Georgia, a state law (HB 839) was passed in 1984 that adopted many elements of Massachusetts Article 22. The law offered the use of compliance alternatives in existing buildings when complete code compliance was not feasible.

We use the term existing buildings, not historic buildings. An "existing building" is defined as any building or structure that has been placed in service a minimum of five years. We found that problems with historic buildings are just one range of a larger set of difficulties. Problems in code compliance begin to arise with relatively new buildings because codes are amended constantly.

The project entailed the development of workshops to train Georgia building and fire code officials in the requirements of the new state law, to develop a model ordinance based on this law for adoption by local and state jurisdictions, to develop a data base of information concerning application of codes to existing buildings and make it available to these jurisdictions and to encourage and facilitate the application of these codes to existing buildings.

The Georgia Trust developed a model ordinance suitable for adoption either by a city or county or by a state. It omits some of the more technical provisions from the new state law which apply only to the peculiarities of Georgia law. The intent is to provide acceptable alternative safeguards to requirements of various fire and building code provisions where strict compliance is not practical.

In the model ordinance, the existing building is the minimum performance standard, which means that the degree of compliance to present day codes following rehabilitation must be equal or greater than the building`s compliance to the codes prior to rehabilitation. There is no requirement in this law for complete compliance to present day codes, no matter how extensive the rehabilitation of the building may be. Unsafe conditions, such as dilapidation, faulty structure, instability, inadequate foundation, insufficient number or capacity of exits and hazardous mechanical systems, however, must be corrected. These corrections may be made through the use of compliance alternatives.

New additions must comply with current building and fire codes and be separated from the existing building by at least a two-hour fire wall. Minor alterations (repair of existing conditions) may be made with materials similar or like to those existing. New mechanical systems must to the fullest extent practical meet applicable codes.

If a total change in the use of a building causes greater hazard than existing usage, the building must comply with applicable and current codes, although compliance alternatives may be utilized. When the proposed use is of equal or lesser hazard, additional code compliance to the current code is not required. If a portion of a building, separated from the rest of the building, is changed to a more hazardous use, only that portion must be upgraded; if it is not separated, then the applicable code for the most hazardous portion of the building must apply to the entire building.

The section on compliance alternatives is at the heart of the ordinance, which provides for the use of acceptable compliance alternatives in lieu of adhering to the precise requirements of the code. The purpose of the compliance alternatives is to provide equal safety by overcompensating on one requirement to balance the failure to meet another requirement. The model ordinance provides specific examples of compliance alternatives. These examples illustrate principles applicable to the rehabilitation of existing buildings, but they do not preclude consideration of alternatives not listed. The five conditions for which the bill provides compliance alternatives are: inadequate number of exits; excessive travel distances to exits; unenclosed or improperly enclosed exit stairs; inadequate fire separation walls and lack of protection of openings in exterior walls.

The ordinance states that appeals will be heard before the designated Appeal body. It also offers liability protection to code officials who accept the law--a refreshing approach to the officials and a major reason for our success.

A special section was included for landmark museum buildings, defined as historic buildings used for museum purposes to "exhibit the building itself."

They must have a high degree of architectural integrity and be open to the public. Landmark museum buildings are exempted from all provisions of the building and fire code except for nine provisions specifically spelled out in the model ordinance. The building may be restored as required without meeting the code. Every landmark museum building is required to have the following, however: a fire extinguisher; a smoke detector sounding an alarm; exit signs; manual fire alarm pull stations above grade level; emergency lighting if used after daylight; occupant loading approved by a professional engineer; occupancy of floors limited to one exit computed by the fire marshal and electrical heating and mechanical systems inspected for hazards. These are the only provisions to which landmark museum buildings are required to adhere. We are currently working on the nominations of several local buildings to be designated as landmark museums.

A final section states that historic buildings are treated like existing buildings except that those designated historic by the State Historic Preservation Officer require the code enforcement official to consider the intent of the Georgia Historic Preservation Act and the Secretary of the Interior`s Standards for Preservation Projects. If the code official is aware that the building not only has to comply to the local code requirements, but in addition is trying to comply with rules and regulations required by these two "codes," perhaps a more cooperative atmosphere will result.

The application of building and fire codes to existing buildings is a common problem across the nation. It affects the safety of us all, in that the majority of these buildings cannot feasibly comply with all current code regulations. We are hopeful that this project will be of assistance in the continuing use of these resources. For further information or copies of the model ordinance, contact Mr. Tommy Jones, preservation administrator, Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, 1516 Peachtree Street, N.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30309. (404) 881-9980.

Publication Date: Spring 1988


Author(s):Gregory B. Paxton