New Buildings are Safe, Older ones Need to Be

We have been working on several area projects with a large life safety component to them. These are renovations to older buildings, whose users are the public. Building codes by definition are enforced to “protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public.” As design professionals and building code enforcers have gained understanding of the risks to the general public, code requirements have increased. This means a lot of older buildings lack contemporary life safety features. Jurisdictions correct this deficiency by requiring renovation projects to include life safety features.

Buildings vary in their use by the public. Single family residences are used by a single family and their guests, while a church or movie theater is used by many strangers at one time. Codes recognize this, and therefore have different life safety requirements for these different uses. Buildings such as theaters, churches, and community centers often have dozens or hundreds of users at one time. These uses are grouped together using “Assembly” as a term describing their occupancy. Users of Assembly occupancies may be unfamiliar with the building. The codes consider user familiarity when thinking about life safety. Obviously if most people who typically use a building are familiar with that building, they have a better sense of where exits are, and are probably less likely to panic when faced with an emergency.

a lot of older buildings lack contemporary life safety features. Jurisdictions correct this deficiency by requiring renovation projects to include life safety features.

For this reason, the renovation of older Assembly occupancy buildings often requires life safety upgrades. Upgrades may include an increase in the number of exits, and the addition of emergency illumination and illuminated exit signs.

The most expensive upgrades are fire alarm and sprinkler system, in that order.On recent projects we have seen fire alarm/emergency lighting costs of around $2 per square foot, and sprinkler costs of around $5-8 per square foot. This means the renovation of an older Assembly building, such as a Grange hall or converted school building, may see $10 per square foot of cost simply for life safety improvements outside of exiting and accessibility improvements. One must note that sprinkler systems come in a variety of flavors. The costs I am using are for a very inexpensive type that is not always available as an option.

Sprinkler systems can be designed to put out quite a bit of water. Moderate hazard areas may require a design that puts out 0.2 gallons of water per square foot of coverage per minute. Maine is a rural state with a lot of wood-framed buildings, and for many of these buildings, municipal water is not available. Very few wells are capable of supplying the water flow necessary for a sprinkler system. Therefore, water must be stored, either in the ground or in the building.

With approval, Maine will allow a type of sprinkler system that is relatively inexpensive to install. This type of system, called a Maine Life Safety System, is meant to provide sprinkler coverage for a limited amount of time, compared to the typical commercial sprinkler system, known as NFPA 13. This discretionary type of system has made the renovation of older buildings in rural Maine much more economical than if NFPA 13 systems were required.

The benefits of reusing older buildings are obvious, but their renovation does come with a price. The possibility of using a Maine Life Safety sprinkler system in rural areas has made reuse easier.

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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.