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.
We have worked with a number of institutions and businesses who own or who have purchased a residence 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, so the life safety features needed to comply with those theories are 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 be used as an exit in an emergency.
For a business, the code imagines a different set of occupants: people who may 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, not necessarily 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 exterior stairs attached to businesses that occupy former residential buildings. That exterior stair is the code-required second exit from the upper floor.
There is another way to go about making small buildings safe: sprinklers. Sprinklers are the “get out of jail free” card for a range of life safety deficiencies. In the case of business conversions of residential buildings, a single exit from an upper floor is allowable when the building has a sprinkler system. We are often discussing the relative cost of sprinkler systems versus exterior stairs with clients. Generally speaking, the costs are about the same, or close enough that price may not be the deciding factor on which way to go.
There is a third route to upper story exiting compliance, and 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, but 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.