Building code simplified

The building code has one purpose

You’ve probably heard of this mysterious document called the Building Code. Even it’s name makes it sound cryptic – since it’s written in “code” we assume it’s something we can’t easily understand. Sure it’s over 1100 pages long in 2 volumes and weighs several pounds, written in an unusual format with oddly numbered sections and subsections. But really it’s only about one thing – ensuring buildings are safe for public occupancy. That’s it. All the rest is supporting material.

What does this mean for your church building project? Essentially you are legally obligated to construct your new building so it will be safe for people. Who wouldn’t want that, right?

Some building code terms

You might hear these words from your architect when he talks about your new church design.

  • Exits. Simply a way to get out of the building quickly in case of emergency. Usually exits are doors or enclosed stairways leading directly outside.
  • Fire-rated. Means the component has been tested in a lab to withstand fire for a certain period of time. Something that is fire rated protects you while you find your way out of the building. Fire rated construction prevents the building from falling down while you’re trying to get out.
  • Occupancy. What the building is used for, which dictates some of its characteristics. A church where people gather (assembly) is different from a heavy machinery workshop. Occupancy rules ensure the level of protection is appropriate for the building’s use.
  • Barrier-free. Means your building is designed so that all people can have access to most parts of it. It means that your building doesn’t discriminate against people in wheelchairs, or with limited eyesight or mobility.
  • Wind and snow loads. Your building is designed with proper bracing so it won’t blow over in the wind or cave in after a heavy snow fall.
  • Smoke developed classification for unprotected openings in exposing building faces. Just kidding, I made this up from actual building code phrases!

Why codes change over time

Fire officials continually learn how to make buildings safer by studying the causes of past fires, which is one reason building codes change over time. New construction is easy, we just follow the building code. The architects, engineers, contractors and building officials all understand it, so if you hear a building code term you don’t understand try to find out why it makes your building safer for people.

In another post we’ll look at applying new building codes to old buildings, which is kind of like “pouring new wine into old wineskins”.

For help deciphering the building code contact Kelly Seminoff or David Parker at Parker Seminoff Architects, or leave a comment below.

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