Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Working With the Code Official 

12-09-2015 17:35

All too often building and fire codes are referred to as obstacles to the goals of historic preservation. Instead, I would suggest that preservationists have been impeded by an inability to integrate successfully two discrete sets of goals and concerns. My intent in this commentary is to argue that these goals are compatible. Information and a commitment to communication can erase the adversarial lines. After all, do not both the preservation and code or safety fields share the objective of property protection?

We have all seen the results of unsuccessful relationships between the preservationist and code official. [For brevity, I use this latter term in its broadest sense--this may in fact be a building code official or fire marshal.] These are the historic buildings that have had their significant architectural features and spaces removed or obliterated for safety reasons. Stairways, corridors, timber construction, wood and tin ceilings, wainscot, panel doors and glass transoms: all are examples of significant architectural elements and features that pose problems to the code official concerned with minimizing fire spread should a fire arise, providing safe means of evacuation for the building`s occupants and safe entry and support for those charged with fighting the fire.

That these architectural elements continue to be lost, and that buildings officially determined to be historically significant buildings are destroyed by fire or otherwise not afforded the highest degree of protection available, points not only to the failure of the codes and their administrators, but also to the failure of the preservation community. We have not taken the time to understand fully either the general premises or the specific requirements of our fire and safety codes. We have not ensured that code officials have the legal and informational tools necessary to deal with our specialized building types or to understand the legal bases of our concerns.

We have not emphatically demanded that historic properties receive the best expertise available, that of architects, engineers and contractors with specific experience in preservation. We have not made wide use of appeal and variance procedures available to help resolve conflicts that arise between the codes and preservation goals. And, until recently, we have not been successful in demanding that the codes--documents written primarily by government and model code organizations to describe construction techniques and materials acceptable for new construction--seriously consider the specialized nuances and needs of historic buildings. Fortunately, these aims are slowly being realized, evidenced by the recent flourish of special codes and provisions for existing and historic buildings.

Most of the above statements explain why difficulties exist in the marrying of preservation and code concerns, but they also point to the direction necessary for the development of sensitive and safe solutions. In many cases, successful solutions require little more than a better understanding of the goals and concerns of the various involved parties and a commitment to an increase in the quality of communications. These elements are crucial:

  • Understand the Intent of the Code
    The development of codes mirrors lessons learned from major fires and advancements in fire safety. Thus, fire protection concerns have a predominant role in building codes and associated regulations or standards. Codes aim to reduce the possibility of ignition occurring; to minimize the spread of fire within the building and to adjacent structures; to provide safe evacuation of occupants; to maximize the safety afforded fire fighters; and to address a wide spectrum of health and public policy concerns, such as minimum levels of natural light and ventilation, full accessibility and usability by the disabled or reduced consumption of non-renewable energy sources.

  • Understand How Codes Treat Historic Buildings
    Most codes have historically based the level of code compliance necessary in a rehabilitation project on the amount of work proposed to occur within a set period of time. For example, although full compliance with code requirements may be necessary for a substantial rehabilitation project undertaken within a six-month period, projects with a significantly more limited scope may be allowed to make in-kind repairs, even if these do not meet current standards, if executed in a safe and sanitary manner.

    Some codes include separate provisions, chapters, or entire documents for rehabilitation of existing or historic buildings. These typically take one of the following forms:

    1. Give discretion to the building official to determine what construction materials and methods are necessary to provide for a safe building.
    2. Specify alternatives from the requirements for new construction.
    3. Allow existing conditions to remain providing that hazards are removed and the overall level of safety provided by the building is not diminished.
    4. Provide for the quantitative assessment of building hazards and allow solutions that meet or exceed a established minimum overall rating.

  • Understand the Constraints of the Code Official
    In most cases codes provide prescriptive statements regarding an acceptable building use, occupancy and method of construction. For historic rehabilitation projects, however, codes may be less specific and require the code official to interpret the intent of the code. This discretion afforded the code official is double-faced: making a building as safe as possible, reducing liability risks, and simultaneously maintaining historic materials and character create an extremely difficult situation for one working without clear guidance or understanding of historic building materials.

  • Use Variance and Appeal Boards
    Beyond certain limits, variations from specified requirements can only legally be made by an entity other than the code official. Most code administrative processes include appeal or variance boards established for special situations or conditions such as those presented by historic buildings. Although sometimes a cumbersome process, this may be the best recourse for the historic building. Ample time should be allotted in the project planning stages. The fire protection, architectural and engineering professionals on these boards have many years of experience and often an acquired, intuitive sense concerning safety and existing buildings.

  • Determine the Preservation Priorities
    Do not assume the code official shares your understanding of, or attitude toward, preservation. Establish written priorities for significant architectural spaces and elements and communicate these, as well as information related to locations where changes can occur without harm to the building`s integrity. Be sure to take time to explain how and why certain elements are considered historic. I am regularly amazed at how quickly preservation concerns can be understood; and, in fact, often surprised that the compromises I am prepared to accept are not necessary once the historic status and significance are explained.

  • Maximize Communication
    Although the term "early-on consultation" has become an overused cliche, its meaning remains extremely important. Introducing the code official to the building and to the rehabilitation project as early as possible--before plans are finalized--is critical. A project may benefit from innovative solutions developed for similar buildings or code situations. In addition, the code official`s thoughts regarding prioritization of code requirements may be of tremendous assistance in the detailed development of architectural plans.

    It is of course impossible to suggest that following the above steps will ensure easy resolution of the conflicts that will arise between historic preservation and building and fire codes. However, I do believe that they will remove the sting and improve the quality of the finished product. The notion that historic buildings are hurt by the involvement of building code officials or fire marshals is incorrect, and we instead should take steps to ensure that our buildings receive the best attention possible by safety and fire protection experts. This requires that we work with and not against the code official, remembering that historic buildings are only one special category of buildings he or she must work with, and perhaps the building type for which the least amount of training and technical resource materials are available. After all, do we not want historic buildings to be at least as well protected as new ones?

    Publication Date: Spring 1988


Author(s):Marilyn E. Kaplan