Making Small Buildings Safe

Making Small Buildings Safe

How easy is it to convert a residence into an office? This happens frequently. When looking at a multi-story residence, code-compliant exiting can be a challenge. When converting a multi-story residence into an office, making small buildings safe often means putting in sprinklers or a second stair.

The Code and Residences

We have worked with a number of owners who have purchased a house for their future office. Invariably, the issue of life safety comes up early in the design, particularly for two- or three-story houses. The reason is simple. Codes have different theories about life safety for businesses than for residences. In other words, the life safety features needed to comply with those different theories is quite different. In a single family residence, everyone in the building is a relative or a friend of the family. They know each other, and will take care of each other in an emergency. Everyone is also very familiar with the building. They live there. Thus in a residence, upper floors, which typically contain bedrooms, require only one regular exit through a door. The code requires bedrooms to have emergency exits, which means having a window of a certain size that can 

The Code and Businesses

For a business, the code imagines a different set of occupants. People who work for different companies may be in the same building. Or, the people in the building may not know each other or the building that well. A fire may start on the south side of the second floor of an office in one tenant space. The other tenants will try to escape the fire, rather than run into the fire to save the other tenants. A fire on the first floor of the building may also hinder people on the second floor. For this reason, the code requires second floors of businesses to have two stairs. This is why we see outside stairs attached to businesses in former residential buildings. That outside stair is the required second exit from the upper floor.


Putting in a sprinkler system is a sure-fire way to make a small building safe. Sprinklers are the “get out of jail free” card for a range of life safety problems. In the case of business conversions of houses, the code allows single exit from an upper floor when the building has a sprinkler system. We often discuss the relative cost of sprinkler systems versus outside stairs with clients. Generally speaking, the costs are about the same, or close enough that price may not be the biggest factor.

Separate Stairs

There is a third route to upper story exiting compliance. It is one we used recently, illustrated by the image shown here. The code allows a second or third story to be served by a single exit when that exit is only used by that story, and has a direct route to the exterior. In other words, the occupants of an upper story have their own, dedicated exit path to the outside. There are instances when the sole existing stair of a residence can be turned into that type of dedicated exit. Alas, we have never seen this good fortune on a project.

In short: making small buildings safe can be a challenge, and it will involve either sprinklers or some type of stair project.

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.

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