Friday, April 16, 2010

The labyrinth of building codes, Part 2

My last post on code issues prompted this response, from poster Bronwyn:

"Another thing I have wanted and should make for myself next time around is a code review guide. Start by figuring out my occupancy, construction, number of floors, and all that. Then, based on those numbers and what is and is not in my building, what do I need for exits, travel distances, fire rating, and more. Then for all the stuff that is the same for any nonresidential project. And finally, are there any niggly specific bits about particular functions, exceptions to general rules...

"Having a guide like that, that says what to check thoroughly, and what you can safely copy from a stock code review, would save a lot of time."

Bronwyn, you've got to be psychic, because that's exactly what I was going to do today. Well done!

Creating a code review template is a great idea and a time saver. I use one myself, written as a Word document, to remind me of all the information that I need to look up and check for each project. Whenever I write down something in the code review--a calculation, a direct quote, whatever--I include in the document the code and the section/line number (i.e., "2006 IBC, 1008.1.1 Exception 2). Making notes of each issue that you research and where you found the "proof" of your result will help you remember later why you only had to have one exit out of a suite, and it will help anyone who works on the project after you to understand what you did and how you "got away with it." (It's not that you're actually "getting away with" something, but sometimes people will look at a plan and think, "wow, that's a huge suite and there's only one exit out of it--is it under 5,000 sf or something?")

To describe the kind of code reviews that I do, I'm using the 2006 International Building Code (IBC) to do the review. Let's go section by section through a code review for a new building. To start with, Chapter 1 is some administration info and Chapter 2 includes tons of definitions, either what a phrase means or where to find the definition of said phrase. They're worth skimming and knowing, but not necessary to comb through for each and every review. Here's what you want to see in a code review and what you want to review each time.

Chapter 3: Use and Occupancy Classification
Review this chapter closely to confirm the occupancy of your project. Bear in mind that you might have more than one occupancy type in your building. For example, I've done hospitals that are part I-2 occupancy and part B occupancy. If you're doing a multi-use high rise, you might have B occupancy (business, like offices), M occupancy (mercantile, like retail stores), and R-2 occupancy (residential, like apartments/condos). If you have more than one occupancy going on in your project, you'll need to check out the mixed occupancy sections in Chapter 5. At any rate, note the occupancy(ies) in your project along with the section number from which you got the definition (i.e., 2006 IBC, 310.1). Remember this info, as it will affect tons of what you end up doing throughout the project.

Chapter 4: Special Detailed Requirements Based on Use and Occupancy
Review this chapter to ensure that you are aware of (and note) any special requirements for certain occupancies. For example, I use Section 407 a lot because it includes many provisions for I-2 (hospitals). Note anything that applies to your project and include the section number.

Chapter 5: General Building Heights and Areas
Now we can find out how big your new building can be. Table 503 tells you how many feet tall, how many stories tall, and how many square feet total your building can be, depending on its construction type. Construction type is covered in Chapter 6. (I know, I know...the code kinda acts like a snake eating its tail sometimes.) This chapter also discusses a variety of special provisions regarding building height, size, and how close new buildings can be to old buildings. Area Modifications, Section 506, talks about how you can increase the height or area of your project (if it's got some space between it and other buildings, if it has sprinklers, etc.). Section 508 discusses mixed occupancy and mixed uses in a project, and Table 508.2 lists special areas, called incidental use areas, that need to be rated and/or sprinklered. Table 508.3.3 tells you what kind of rating is required between different occupancies in a building. Review this entire chapter closely--it can affect the size and rating of your building.

Chapter 6: Types of Construction
A short chapter, but a very important one. This chapter discusses what kind of materials are acceptable in different construction types. Remember the construction type Chapter 5 told you your building needed to be, depending on its size? Table 601 tells you what kind of fire protection needs to be on the building elements (like the structure, roof, floors, etc.) in your building. As usual, make note of this in your code review.

Chapter 7: Fire-Resistance-Rated Construction
All this business you've been seeing in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 about rated walls and smoke partitions and so on is explained here. Each section explains what is required in a fire wall versus a fire barrier versus a fire partition versus a smoke partition as well as other special types of fire-rated construction--where you need to use them, what's involved in using them, and so on. This chapter also tells you in Tables 715.4, 715.5, and 715.5.3 what kind of ratings are required of doors and windows installed in rated walls. Get familiar with this chapter, especially sections 701 through 719. Review the rest of the chapter, but you'll use 701-719 most often.

Chapter 8: Interior Finishes
The main thing you'll need to document from this brief chapter is what class or classes of finish materials you're allowed to use in your project, primarily from Table 803.5. Review and note anything relevant from this chapter.

Chapter 9: Fire Protection Systems
This chapter talks a lot about sprinkler systems, what's required in what occupancy types. Review the chapter in full, as your project may require other special fire protection systems, like standpipe systems, detection systems, alarm systems, venting systems, and the like.

Chapter 10: Means of Egress
This is the chapter I probably use the most--I could do an entire post on Chapter 10! First off, get really familiar with the definitions in section 1002, and refer back to them as you read the rest of the chapter. This chapter tends to really do the snake-eating-its-tail thing, and the language can get dense. This chapter is where knowing the square footage of each occupancy and each type of project use comes in handy; you'll be doing a lot of calculating numbers of occupants (Table 1004.1.1), the required widths of doors and stairs (Table 1005.1), and you'll be doing a lot of measuring on your plans--stair widths, ramp dimensions, exit travel distances, and so on. Get really familiar with this entire chapter, and take plenty of notes--you'll likely revisit this a great deal.

Chapter 11: Accessibility
Section 1101.2 indicates that buildings must be accessible (by mobility- or ability-impaired people) in accordance with this chapter as well as with ICC A117.1, which is often called "ANSI" around our office. These accessibility codes are different in some ways from the 1994 ADA Standards of Design, so you need to look at all of these codes. Having said that, review this chapter and note anything that relates to your project. For example, I make notes of section 1107.5.3 because I work on Group I-2 hospitals. Section 1108 discusses accessibility requirements for special occupancies, such as assembly occupancies (theaters and stadiums, for example).

Chapter 12: Interior Environment
This is good to review in case you have special situations going on inside your building, such as under-floor ventilation (like you might see in a tech-heavy office), and it also indicates minimum interior space dimensions.

Chapter 13: Energy Efficiency
This chapter is only a few sentences long, and it just tells you to refer to the International Energy Conservation Code (IEEC).

Chapters 14 through 28 are the kinds of chapters that you might refer to on occasion, or your engineers will refer to them. The next chapters you'll need are Chapter 29 (Plumbing Systems) will help you calculate how many plumbing fixtures your building needs, and Chapter 30 (Elevators and Conveying Systems) describes requirements for elevators, escalators, and other conveying systems.

In each of these chapter descriptions, you'll notice that I recommend that you read the entire chapter. If you're still learning about a code, it's a good idea to review it a few times, even if all the sections don't relate to you on this project right now. You'll eventually get a feel for the code's contents, and when you need to find a particular section (where the hell's that part about door ratings in a rated wall?), you'll be better able to do so. Ultimately, the more time you spend getting familiar with the code, and the more you perform code reviews, the more comfortable you get with codes overall.


  1. Great information, glad I came across this recently. Sorry, this is off topic. Do you know what's up with the new IDP categories coming January? I receive my NCARB mag yesterday and am starting to wonder. I was a good little intern before getting laid off and my employer had lots of opportunities to spread the work tasks around. This was looking like a good thing as I think I can finish all of my Category A tasks now through EPC. Some with more work than others but It would give me flexibility in what other work settings to go for in this economy. I'm hoping to finish IDP sometime in my life! That said, it looks like some of the current IDP tasks have been split (cost/code analysis) and there are some new ones. NCARB says that you won't lose hours, but at the same time they are now more buckets to fill with minimums. Will the new work settings allow for some of these new minimums to be picked up? Are they going to expand EPC so that we can cover more ground? This is kind of a big deal in this economy where finding the right setting with the right hours is harder and harder to find. Thanks for covering this at some point.

  2. Anon: great question! Let me dig into this a little deeper and I'll post on it. Thanks for the suggestion/question!

  3. Thanks for the overview on code search! Love reading this blog, it is very helpful! I was wondering if you would have an interest in writing an entry about the bidding and negotiation phase of projects? Thanks,