ICC Insight For Businesses With Outdoor Seating Spaces

Before setting up your tent or other enclosures, consider these four questions to ensure code compliance and life safety.

Stephen D. Jones, MS, CBO, MCP, NJCEM

With the recent influx of cold weather throughout most of the Northeast, businesses have been able to continue attracting patrons through a shift to outdoor operations. While this cold trend has already hit some of the country, it’s right around the corner for others, and imperative for all to keep top of mind. Whether a restaurant, bar, food market, or similar establishment, creating outdoor seating has allowed many businesses to remain afloat throughout COVID-19 and will be crucial for the coming months.

outdoor seating
Photo: Getty Images

However, before putting up your tent or enclosures, there are important safety considerations to address first:

1. Do you need or have the proper permits?

Businesses looking to setup outdoor seating spaces will likely need to receive pre-approval in the form of a permit from either a state or local building department. Depending on the arrangement and type of structure (i.e. tents, bubbles, etc.), owners, agents or managers may be required to submit construction documents for the Authorities Having Jurisdiction’s (AHJ) review and approval. The AHJ can be any organization, office, or individual responsible for enforcing the requirements of a code or standard, as well as approving equipment, materials, an installation, or a procedure.

2. Is your structure temporary or permanent?

You might be surprised to learn that the International Building Code (IBC), a set of codes and standards developed by the US-based International Codes Council as part of its International Codes (I-Codes) defines a temporary structure, including temporary tents and umbrella structures, as one that is erected for a period of less than 180 days. For structures surpassing 180 days’ time, owners, agents and managers would be required to ensure the structure complies with more in-depth provisions of the codes.

Business owners, agents and managers must decide upfront whether they are looking to construct a temporary or permanent outdoor seating space. If undecided on which would best serve your needs, check in with your local building department.

3. Is your location approved?

Although the most obvious location choice for an outdoor seating space is in front of one’s own storefront, this may not always be approved by local AHJs due to safety reasons.

For example, temporary outdoor seating spaces and any barriers used to block off the area cannot obstruct access to fire hydrants or the fire department’s connect to automatic sprinkler systems. Additionally, it will be important to not block any entrance or exit of nearby buildings as this would be another safety hazard. Other important considerations when choosing a location include: not negatively impacting the existing accessible parking spaces or routes; and separating outdoor seating areas from designated food and beverage pick-up utilizing approved barriers or adequate separation distances between adjacent automobile travel lanes and outdoor seating spaces.

4. Is your space fire safe?

Without proper precautions heating an outdoor structure can prove to be hazardous, making fire ratings and protective measures critical.

When constructing a designated outdoor dining space, the combustibility rating of the materials should always be evaluated and approved for the intended use. Here are a few important fire safety hazards to keep an eye out for:

  • Structure Materials: a popular choice for owners, agents, and managers when creating coverings for their outdoor spaces has been tents and other similar structures. However, it is important to ensure these membranes are fire-rated and test for compliance with the appropriate codes.
  • Heating: as owners, agents and managers work to combat the cold weather in their outdoor spaces, it is critical not to install fuel supplied, propane or natural gas heaters within an enclosed dining area. Releasing carbon monoxide when in combustion, this odorless, colorless gas when inhaled in sufficient quantities can cause serious injuries or death. Additionally, any temporary heater installed complies with the manufacturer’s installation requirements
  • Designated Cooking Area: unless specifically designed for such use, cooking should not take place within tents used for dining.outdoor seating

Whether temporary or permanent, outdoor seating spaces will continue to play a large role for businesses economically. Understanding this can be a complex and multifaceted endeavor, contact your local building department about requirements before investing your time and money into an outdoor seating space.

As a result of the nuanced and regulated nature of adding outdoor seating, the International Code Council has published considerations and guidelines for business owners and designers erecting temporary outdoor seating spaces. For the full guide, “Considerations for Converting Outdoor Spaces into Temporary Seating Spaces,” click here.

Jones is a Government Relations senior regional manager with the International Code Council (ICC), responsible for the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and New Jersey. A certified building official, Jones has more than 35 years of construction industry experience. He is a past president of the International Code Council’s Board of Directors (2013–2014) and a former member of the International Accreditation Service Board of Directors. Jones is a sitting governor for the World Organization of Building Officials, and a former member of the Board of Direction for the National Council of Governments on Building Codes and Standards for the National Institute of Building Sciences. Jones has a bachelor’s degree in applied science and technology, a graduate certificate in homeland security from Thomas Edison State College, and a master’s degree in homeland security and emergency management from Thomas Edison State University.