Commercial buildings are the focus of numerous major changes proposed for the next editions of the national model building codes and standards currently under development by the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). These model codes and standards are the foundation for various building regulations enforced in most cities and states across the country. Incorporation of model code requirements in local regulations has traditionally been a slow process that played out over many years, but that dynamic changed with the advent of ICC’s coordinated family of codes in 2000. It is now common for changes to the model documents to find their way into local regulations in three years or less. The recently proposed changes deal primarily with fire protection and egress of building occupants in an emergency.
Some of the most significant changes proposed in the current development cycles for both the ICC and NFPA codes include the addition of fire and smoke control elevator “lobbies” in all high-rise office buildings, regardless of the presence of sprinklers or other fire protection measures. Specifically, this would require one-hour fire-resistance rated enclosures at all areas where elevators discharge (elevator lobbies) in buildings five stories or more in height with full sprinkler systems. An exception to allow for pressurization of the elevator shafts as an alternative to providing lobbies was included, but either measure represents a fundamental change in traditional construction requirements with enormous future costs and, as yet, no clearly defined benefits. The subject of elevator lobbies has been a controversial one for the past several years, as varying requirements have been enforced on a regional basis in the past. BOMA anticipates there will be numerous proposals to modify or eliminate these new requirements during the upcoming code development cycles at ICC and NFPA.
A code change that increases the required fire resistance ratings for buildings greater than 420 feet in height was also recently approved at ICC. This change reduces the scope of a long-standing exception in the model codes permitting a reduction in construction classification for buildings not more than 420 feet in height. The effect of this change is to require three-hour fire-resistance ratings for columns, girders, and trusses (from the current two-hour rating), and an increase for shaft enclosure fire-resistance rating from one to two hours. This change will also be the subject of numerous proposals in the next code development cycle due to the significant construction cost increases and lack of detailed benefit justification by its proponents.
Stairway re-entry requirements were the subject of yet another proposed change at ICC in 2004 that can be traced directly to the tragic fire in the Cook County building in Chicago this past year. A long-standing exception in the building code, allowing the locking of stairwell doors against re-entry for security purposes in low-rise buildings, was modified to prevent re-entry only if these doors are capable of being unlocked simultaneously without unlatching upon a signal from the fire command station or a single location inside the main entrance to the building. This would require electronic locking devices and wiring to the central control point and add significantly to the costs of locking the stairwell doors in these buildings.
Changes proposed during the current development cycle for the NFPA Building and Life Safety Codes also significantly impact commercial construction. A change to increase the minimum stair width in buildings based on the cumulative occupant load of multiple floors has received preliminary approval. The intent of the change is to require wider stairs (minimum 48 inches clear width) where the “occupant load” of all floors exiting into a stairwell exceeds 2,000 occupants. Current code provisions do not require sizing of stairs based on the occupant load of multiple floors, and allow a minimum 35 inches of clear width. This change is the first to deal with the issue of full building evacuation in fundamentally different ways than we have in the past.
The commercial real estate industry must have effective representation as we deal with these and other proposed changes to the model codes in the next two years. Such proposed changes are more numerous today than ever before as a consequence of heightened attention on office buildings and other private and public structures since Sept. 11, 2001. The involvement of professionals throughout the commercial real estate industry will be essential if we are to continue to develop regulations that both provide the level of safety our tenants have come to expect and are sensitive to the economic realities of the market.
For more information, contact BOMA International at (202) 408-2662 or visit (www.boma.org).