By Scott Heywood, AIA, LEED AP
What keeps leaders up at night regarding their construction projects? Creating project budgets that reflect real costs and avoid costly change orders.
One cost-efficient step that resolves much of this uncertainty is a pre-code compliance checklist. Completing this list should be part of the programming phase of a project. For a small investment, compared to the scope of the project, architects can complete the code compliance check ahead of time before project owners finalize their budgets. This protects stakeholders from surprises that might otherwise be found above the ceiling during the construction phase.
The Result — user satisfaction and operational efficiency.
What is minimized — delays, requests for additional funding, and disruption of university functions.
Following are insights, and how to successfully hurdle what is often a significant challenge — access.
Pre-Code Compliance Insights
Begin by reviewing the existing as-built plans, typically old drawings or PDFs. If possible, compile a list of all previous renovations in chronological order, showing the date and location of each. This will benefit both the design team as well as provide a valuable reference for the client. Begin a narrative for the project with a summary of this history and include how the building is currently being used. What functions are taking place there? The pre-code study should match this use profile.
Next, determine the most significant code issues. sprinklers, fire alarm systems, and numbers of staircases. Calculate occupancy to ensure that corridors are wide enough for egress, that existing stairs are adequate, and that hand rails, treads and risers meet code. Every occupant must have two paths out of the building, and the width of the egress paths must conform to code. Confirm the presence of sprinklers and of a fire alarm system. Identify fire extinguisher cabinet locations and, in older buildings, fire hose locations. Identify the locations of all exit signage and document all doors that lead to the outside.
Continue the narrative with the following three sections: an executive summary that describes all attached drawings, a list of deficiencies found (such as in sufficient holding capacity or fire alarms out that are of date), and a list of recommendations for remediation.
Findings can reveal a variety of issues. For example, the previous building code may not satisfy today’s standards. Perhaps a university leader wants to convert a facility from a classroom building to assembly occupancy, but the existing structure does not have the fire protection rating that code requires for an assembly space. Another issue can be when an older building has a single monumental staircase in the middle of the floor plate complicating access standards. Here, remediation in the plan would call for two interior fire egress stairs at opposite ends of the building. Finally, a desire to open up a floor plan to create larger spaces may be unfeasible because the resulting area is not sprinkled.
Effective documentation identifies useful data. Documentation is always a challenge, especially for older buildings. The egress paths show the path that people would take to leave the building. The code specifies the maximum length of the egress path. Drawings show ratings of walls, widths of stairs and how many people those stairs can accommodate. This is compared to the number of occupants on each floor. Documentation also identifies exit signage and fire extinguisher cabinets.
Optimize the value of the pre code compliance check by investigating specific systems. In older buildings, fire alarms and safety systems are typically as old as the buildings themselves. Based on construction type of the building and its occupancy use, the building can be too big or too tall for certain sprinkler system upgrades. As a building owner starts to upgrade these systems, the need to rework entire buildings may be discovered. At some universities, for instance, any time the planners touched a building that didn’t have sprinklers, they are asked to add them, which requires significant wall and ceiling excavation. Added to this can be a concern for adequate water flow at city main level to feed the sprinklers.
Hurdling The Access Challenge
The project team must have the time and access to see everything necessary to appropriately perform a valuable pre code check. The actual evaluation and site observations will vary based on the size of the project. However, in general, a week or so of planning is sufficient to get the right facilities people scheduled to help with the evaluation. Then, factor in an additional week for documentation and report. In all, a three week timeframe for this process is usually a good estimate.
Advance planning. To assemble the right facilities persons with the right keys to access the appropriate areas in the facility usually requires a full week of planning. Specify how much time each inspection will require and itemize each area — whether it is a mechanical or an electrical room or an area above a ceiling — that needs access. A casual walk through is rarely adequate, as this typically misses key spots.
Inform users ahead of the pre-code check. The architect should organize the inspection tour so as not to waste the facilities group’s time. In addition, a few days ahead of time, alert the current users of the space about the coming inspection.
The hardest functions to check tend to be more intrusive. These will require more scheduling care and alerts to current occupants. Verify the accuracy of existing (as built) plans. This may require laser scanning and/or manual measurement of every room. Document wall ratings and any separations between occupancy groups. For example, when separating a large auditorium from offices, capture the wall ratings. Pop ceiling tiles to determine if the wall extends up to the deck. You may find a stenciled text that states whether the wall is rated at 1 hour or 2 hours of fire resistance. All doors in rated walls must be rated doors. This requires a door by door inspection, which can be time consuming. Open the door and inspect the edge for its rating. The label may be painted over.
The end product of the study is a set of life safety drawings and a narrative. Life safety drawings are a requirement and identify concerns, such as rated walls, that are not included in the narrative. Together, these offer a pre-code compliance check that is sure to render significant savings.
Heywood is director of the Birmingham, AL office of Ghafari, a firm that provides architecture, engineering, and construction services. With nearly 20 years of experience, he is responsible for managing projects, client relationships, and new pursuits in the higher education, healthcare, government, and industrial sectors with a regional focus on the Southeastern United States.