Elevator Lobbies: Blessing or Bane?

April 5, 2005
An attractive design feature in many multi-floor buildings is the harmonious blending of open or enclosed elevator lobbies with the main lobby, workspaces, reception areas, or as appendages to atriums. Elevator lobbies often provide a critical first impression about the work performed on a particular floor, as well as effectively tie the workspace into the overall design scheme. They can also make workspaces feel larger merely by their attachment to the space. Unfortunately, in the last few years, elevator lobbies have also become very controversial. Enclosed elevator lobbies for fire and smoke control have been required by local building codes in some jurisdictions for some time, but they can serve several other purposes unrelated to building regulations. When totally enclosed, elevator lobbies can provide added security, particularly on a floor with a single tenant, and can – in some instances – provide an area of refuge for tenants in the event of a fire. These two issues – fire/smoke protection and security – have been the subjects of vigorous debate for the past decade within national model building code development organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Intl. Code Council (ICC).  The idea of mandating enclosed lobbies through building code regulation has gained momentum, and critical decisions on their inclusion in the codes will be made in 2005. Recent fires in Chicago’s LaSalle Building and the Windsor Building in Madrid, Spain, have accelerated interest in fire safety, particularly in high-rise buildings. That has led to an examination of new ways to mitigate damage and loss from building fires, including mandates to provide enclosed elevator lobbies.The primary rationale cited by proponents for enclosed lobbies is that smoke infiltrating the elevator shaft and spreading throughout the building may pose a significant life safety threat, even in buildings with a full sprinkler system throughout as currently mandated by the codes. Those opposed to mandatory enclosed elevator lobbies, including BOMA Intl. and the U.S. General Services Administration, point out that there is no evidence of a significant life safety threat due to fire in fully sprinklered high-rise buildings, and therefore, the enormous cost of such requirements cannot be justified. In fact, no multiple fatalities from fires in such buildings have ever been recorded. Mandatory elevator lobbies in high-rise buildings have been extensively debated during the current NFPA code development cycle. Proposals to mandate enclosed elevator lobbies in new high-rise buildings were initially accepted and later rejected by committees for both the NFPA Life Safety Code and the NFPA Building Code. There is a possibility that this issue will be revisited during the final NFPA membership action this May, or via appeal to the NFPA Standards Council – in fact, both occurred during previous NFPA development cycles. However, based on recent actions, it is reasonable to expect that the next editions of NFPA’s Life Safety and Building Codes will not include requirements for enclosed elevator lobbies.Requirements for enclosed elevator lobbies were approved for the Intl. Code Council’s (ICC) Intl. Building Code (IBC) in 2004 during the first portion of ICC’s process for developing changes to the 2006 edition of the IBC. Code development hearings for the second portion of the cycle were scheduled during February in Cincinnati, and final action to determine the content of the 2006 IBC will be held this September. BOMA Intl. has submitted several proposals seeking to eliminate the mandatory requirement for elevator lobbies, or to clarify and provide more flexibility to the currently flawed requirements approved in 2004. BOMA will continue to work to reverse the decision to expand the application of enclosed lobby requirements, but will also work to ensure that any requirements are clearly written and provide reasonable options for compliance.Tenant security is another element in the enclosed elevator lobby debate. Many jurisdictions are considering a requirement for an additional means of egress in enclosed elevator lobbies when access to an existing stairwell is not available. Building codes have always required a secondary means of egress in addition to elevators, but providing an additional stairway in elevator lobbies may not be possible depending on building design.  BOMA Intl. is closely following this issue and will work to ensure that any requirements are clearly written and provide reasonable options for compliance.Are elevator lobbies a blessing or bane? The answer to that question clearly depends on one’s design perspective and ability to tailor building design to tenant needs.  It is equally clear that this is not a life safety question. BOMA Intl. continues to work for effective and affordable building regulations that allow maximum flexibility for designers as well as the building owners and managers that must meet tenants’ needs every day.  For more information on these issues, contact BOMA Intl. at (202) 408-2662 or visit (www.boma.org).

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