Fire Prevention and Building Code
Compliance for Historic Buildings:
A Field Guide
University of Vermont
Graduate Program in Historic Preservation
Community Advocacy Project
Vermont has an unusually high proportion
of older buildings many of which are historic. These buildings contribute
substantially to the sense of community and place which makes Vermont unique.
The dilemma facing many older public buildings involves synthesizing modern
fire and safety requirements with the traditional goals of historic preservation.
As part of a new or continued use, it is often necessary to make modifications
to a historic building so it can comply with current fire and safety code
requirements. Therefore, it is important that owners of older and historic
buildings seek the assistance of fire safety engineers and architects who
specialize in the preservation of these structures.
circa 1950 exit sign still in operation
One of the greatest concerns during any rehabilitation project is the potential threat to the lives of occupants from fire. Therefore, of prime importance to local and state officials is the safety of the building's occupants. Issues such as structural integrity, means of egress, the presence of hazardous materials and fire safety influence much of the decision making during the permitting process. More often then not, rehabilitation projects that involve older buildings have to consider the issue of fire safety code compliance. Historic buildings rarely meet modern life safety code requirements. Making the necessary adaptations to comply with national, state and local building and life safety codes can be one of the most difficult challenges for the owner, builder or architect involved in the project. Issues such as open stairways, narrow or dead-end corridors, doors that are too narrow or swing the wrong way, or unrated materials must be dealt with in ways that satisfy the local code before the buildings can be occupied.
Planning is the crucial element in any rehabilitation project. It is important to include in the earliest stages of planning input from those code officials whose concern is with life safety and related matters. Official involvement at the very onset of a project assures that these extremely important issues get full and early consideration, and increases the likelihood that all possible alternatives will be considered.
Buildings codes are written primarily for
new construction. They establish a minimum standard for building construction
through the use of prescriptive standards that specify allowable materials
or techniques. They further establish performance standards that specify
the level of performance which any proposed material assembly must meet.
Historic Iron Fire Escape, Town Office, Putney, Vermont
Building codes often determine allowable
construction techniques or materials by weighing the degree of safety provided
by the building against the degree of hazard presented by the user and by
taking into account such factors as installed fire detection and suppression
systems. Codes are adopted as law based on specific standards prepared by
independent associations, such as the National Fire Protection Association
(NFPA). These standards are typically narrow in their focus and provide
more detailed information than the codes themselves.
Because of knowledge born from the historical analysis of fire loss, the evolution of life safety codes has grown and surpassed old building designs. Therefore, it remains essential to update code documents at regular intervals in response to new safety formulas and technological advances. New code modifications can present further challenges to the rehabilitation of historic buildings constructed prior to the adoption of the code. These challenges typically must be addressed by local officials with the authority to approve noncomplying alternatives in special circumstances or through variance hearings, usually conducted at a higher level of authority.
A code review illustrates those areas where
code requirements are most stringent, and exposes conflicts between code
requirements and historic preservation concerns. In some instances this
review might assist in determining use and designs that cause the least
damage to a structure's historic character. Typical code or life safety
deficiencies found in historic and older buildings might relate to construction
types, egress issues, use and occupancy, fire suppression, alarm systems,
and site concerns. Some deficiencies can be addressed without damage to
the historic character of the building, while others require innovative
Sprinkler head placement with minimum impact
Vermont State House, Montpelier, Vermont
Unless an older or historic building is
already in compliance with the fire safety requirements, consideration must
still be made for the regulatory requirement issues to meet modern code
compliance standards. This Field Guide intends to make this process clearer
for the owner or building professional as well as the building itself. The
issues and illustrated solutions covered in the Field Guide are frequently
encountered in a typical building rehabilitation. Illustrated examples are
intended to demonstrate a sympathetic solution for that particular structure
and are often the most economical. The examples are suggestions and are
intended to be seen as creative solutions to fire code compliance in older
and historic structures.
For a sample page from the Field Guide,
The Field Guide is available at the Vermont Department of Labor and Industry in Montpelier.
Historic Preservation Links and Resources
National Trust for Historic Preservation
University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program
Vermont Division for Historic Preservation
Vermont Heritage Network
This project was completed by Historic Preservation
graduate students Paul Austin, Patricia Foster, Matthew Janiga, Steven Melanson
and James Moran.