Applying new building codes to old buildings

What does “bring it up to code” really mean?

The conversation usually starts like this “When you renovate you’ll have to ‘bring it up to Code’”. A vague statement like this can conjure up all sorts of doomsday scenarios, most of them involving large amounts of money. Each building is unique, and the older the building, the less it fits within current building codes. Unfortunately there are no definite rules about what exactly “bringing it up to code” will encompass.

Safety first

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the primary goal of the Building Code is to ensure buildings are safe for people. While building owners are not required to completely upgrade their existing building to current codes, some additional upgrades may be required. Building officials do try to balance life safety with cost.

Common code issues in renovations

Here are some common issues we run into when designing a church renovation.

  • Exits. Where large groups are gathered exit doors need to be easily operated, usually with “panic hardware”, the horizontal bar device seen on many doors. Older churches may not have this hardware, or some doors may swing in the wrong direction, against the flow of traffic.
  • Fire separations. In an older church you might have a basement or a balcony that is open to the other floors. Today’s codes require each storey to be separated from the other stories by doors or enclosed stairways to contain fire and smoke, allowing people to find their way out safely.
  • Barrier free washrooms. This is the most common issue we run into in older buildings. If you’re renovating washrooms, you’ll be required to make them barrier free if at all possible by including at least one larger toilet stall, grab bars, lower sinks, lever type faucets, easily reachable soap and towel dispensers, and clear space on each side of the doors. Adding a separate Universal Washroom is sometimes an acceptable alternative.
  • Ventilation. This comes up most often when you’re converting a retail space or offices into a church. When lots of people gather, you need more ventilation. Commercial space is simply not designed for all those extra people so you’ll need to upgrade. It’s usually not negotiable and can be quite expensive.
  • Fire alarm and sprinklers. Most buildings today require both fire alarm and sprinklers. If your existing building doesn’t have either, you probably won’t be required to install them, but if it does the system may need upgrading depending on it’s age and expandability as well as the extent of renovations.

Making building more accessible

There can be other issues as well, but “Bringing it up to Code” is really about finding ways to make older buildings safer and more accessible for all people. Read our other blog post for more information about churches and building codes.

For help in applying New Codes to Old Buildings contact David Parker or Kelly Seminoff at Parker Seminoff Architects, or leave a comment below.

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10 Responses to New building codes vs. old churches

  1. Kimberly Marcum says:

    I am trying to find out if all churches are required to have lighted exit signs and smoke detectors. We are in the process of remodeling our church in West Virginia and I am having trouble locating building codes. Can someone please help?

    Thank You

    • Yes, all churches are required to have exit signs and smoke detectors, as it is essential for fire safety. However, the exact number and placement of these devices is dictated by your local building code. There are a few ways you can find out what is required: First you should talk to someone in the building approvals department of your local municipality, perhaps a building inspector. You could also talk to an electrical contractor who is familiar with the installation of life safety systems. Another avenue is to talk to the people who supply the actual devices; a quick google search should show you several options in your area.

  2. Steve says:

    Is there a max limit of people who can be in the church building at one time?

    • Yes there is a limit. Your local building code has various criteria to determine the number of occupants that can safely get out of the building in case of fire or other emergency. Some of the criteria might be: size of the room; purpose of the room and/or number of exit doors. For instance in our jurisdiction, Alberta, a meeting room with only one exit door can have a maximum of 60 people, even though the room might be large enough to accommodate 200 people or more.

      To answer questions about your specific building we recommend you consult with someone who has knowledge of your local building code; your city’s planning and building department may also be able to help.

  3. Ruby says:

    We have an older church and there are double doors in the front and a exit door in the basement. Recently our church has discussed locking the doors once the service has started. (Since we are on the main highway & todays Happenings we find it necessary). Our double doors have a latch that a child and turn to exit the church. It is not a spring loaded bar door but I feel it is just as easy to get out. The door opens to the outside. Would we be violating a code if we lock the front doors or do we have to install doors with spring loaded bars on them ?

    • The hardware you describe is commonly referred to as panic hardware, or exit device. In our jurisdiction we can use normal hardware if the capacity of the room is under 100 people, anything over that and we need panic hardware. We suggest you call your city’s building permit department and talk to a building inspector who will advise on the proper requirements. If regular hardware is allowed you may want to consider using barrier-free lever-type handles instead of round knobs, as they are easier for the elderly and disabled to operate. There are many types available but make sure they allow exit from inside while remaining locked from the outside.

  4. John D Jones says:

    We are replacing our church double wood doors. Some are insisting that they be commercial steel, steel frame fire doors. I am trying to argue otherwise. Am I correct saying the only requirements are 1 hr fire rating and proper egress? Thanks

    • If they are exterior doors they may not need a fire rating. And depending on the number of people exiting, one or both sides will need to be operable. Building code requirements vary from place to place, so a call to your municipality’s planning and building department should clarify what is required. Other things to think about are durability, maintenance and security. A door is the first thing visitors touch when they come to your church; it’s like a handshake.

  5. Jeff Brogneaux says:

    We are in the process of updating our children’s area. Is there a requirement for corridor width? We currently have 8 foot corridors but want to put a check point in that will narrow the corridor. I can’t find if that is ok and if it is ok at all how far is ok. Any help you could provide would be great.

    • Yes, there are minimum widths that may vary depending on a number of factors: your jurisdiction; the number of people the corridor serves and whether it is an exit corridor. For instance, here in Alberta, we need 8mm of width for every person exiting, with a minimum width of 1100mm. So if your children’s area has a large room for gatherings of 500 people, you will need 4000mm of cumulative exit width. Similarly, an 1100mm corridor would serve up to 137 people exiting. The best thing to do is call your city’s planning and building department and ask to speak with a safety Codes officer or building inspector. Be very careful though, before you do anything to restrict exits in your building; it could have disastrous consequences in an emergency situation.

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