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Life Safety Code and the Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings

On Behalf of | May 1, 2010 | Land Development & Zoning

Repainting the interior of an existing multi-family property.  Replacing existing carpet with hardwood floors.  Reconfiguring cubicles within an existing office space.  Leasing a former restaurant space to a professional office.  Adding a 100 s.f. space to an existing building.  What do these improvements or changes have in common?  They all may be considered acts of “rehabilitation” for purposes of the National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code and, as such, depending upon the scope, may trigger the need to bring an existing building or some portion of it up to current life safety standards.

New Hampshire has adopted the 2006 NFPA Life Safety Code as a part of the State Fire Code.  The Code establishes construction, occupancy, and protection standards for the benefit of occupants of both new and existing buildings.  For example, the Code establishes whether a sprinkler system is required, limits the use of certain interior finishes, and prescribes standards for exit doors and stairs.  As can be expected, the standards for existing buildings are generally not as stringent as those for new buildings.  In addition, the standards vary based upon the occupancy of the building.  While the Code itself includes standards for all types of buildings, it is our view that state statute exempts single-family and certain multi-family dwellings.  Please be aware, however, that based upon our experience, enforcement officials may not share this view.  In any event, new to the Code is Chapter 43 which generally addresses the “rehabilitation” of existing buildings.  In short, under Chapter 43, an existing building may not always be treated as an existing building if you make changes to its use or occupancy, or make improvements to an existing building.

As the examples first set out above suggest, the notion of “rehabilitation” is very broad under Chapter 43.  It includes improvements ranging from new paint or new flooring in an existing building to a new addition to an existing building.  It also includes changes in use or occupancy of a building, even if there is no physical change to the building or relevant space in that building.  For example, leasing an existing building space which had been used by a gym to a day care might be considered “rehabilitation” as the Code treats them as different types of occupancies.  The Code divides “rehabilitation” work on existing buildings into six different categories—repair, renovation, modification, reconstruction, change of use or occupancy, and addition. While there are additional considerations, generally speaking as you progress from a “repair,” such as repainting, toward a more extensive “addition,” it becomes more likely that the work will have to satisfy the more stringent new building requirements.

A determination that rehabilitation work triggers the need to comply with new building standards may have both short-term and long-term consequences.  Obviously, in the short-term, the rehabilitation work may be more costly.  For example, sprinkler systems may be required for new buildings, but not for existing buildings in certain types of occupancies.  In terms of long-term consequence, the Code provides that once a building, even an existing building, is brought up to current standards, it cannot be brought down to the lower existing building standards in the future.   In short, if you agree to bring an existing building up to current standards as a result of a rehabilitation effort, you probably will not be able to eliminate those features if you have second thoughts down the road.

The application of Chapter 43 to a particular project is fact-dependent and implicates other provisions of the Code.  In addition, a particular project may present design alternatives (i.e., the elimination of a door or moving a particular use from one space to another within the building) which eliminate the life safety issues.  Finally, the Code does recognize that alternatives to the general requirements may be allowed in some instances.  As such, if you have a question about the application of the Life Safety Code to a particular project by the relevant authority, it is best to consider the potential ramifications before committing to a project that may have unintended consequences.