Does renovation mean everything must be brought up to code?

Determining what items are required to be brought up to current building code requirements is a challenge when designing renovations of existing structures. Looking at the life safety scope of a project, I tend to find issues in almost any existing building that would not meet current code if the building were designed today. Of course as a fire protection engineer, I wish to address every one of these issues and design the building to be as safe as possible. The owners, however, always have a budget they must work with. Some items that may have been acceptable by code when the building was originally designed may require unreasonable, costly changes to correct for compliance with today’s code.


Lately, I’ve been digging into Chapter 34 of the International Building Code (IBC) [Kentucky Building Code is currently based on the 2012 IBC], which addresses these very issues. This chapter provides various methods for addressing code compliance whether dealing with building additions, alterations (renovations), repairs, changes in occupancy, historic buildings, etc.


Section 3412 of the IBC, “Compliance Alternatives,” provides a means of evaluating a building’s overall life safety condition, for Fire Safety, Means of Egress, and General Safety components. This approach involves tallying points, positive or negative, for various features of the building such as height and area, automatic sprinkler system, egress travel distance, etc. As the points are tallied, minimum scores are required for compliance. To acquire more points, specific components may be corrected, such as adding a fire alarm system or providing proper separation of occupancies. This approach may provide owners with flexibility for how their money is spent, while ensuring that the building provides a minimum level of safety for its occupants.


Evaluating the options should involve several project stakeholders, such as a fire protection engineer, architect, MEP engineers, building owners, maintenance staff, authorities having jurisdiction, property insurance provider, etc. As a team, the owner’s vision and budget can be balanced with life safety.