780 CMR Chapter 34 May Be Getting More Restrictive

On September 10, The Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations & Standards (BBRS) made the decision to move 14 code change proposals forward for final public comment and possible promulgation at their October 8th meeting. For commercial building designers and owners, the most notable of the proposed changes involves 780 CMR 34.00, Existing Structures which references the 2009 International Existing Building Code (IEBC).

urrently, IEBC users have the choice between three separate compliance methods in Massachusetts which include the: (1) Prescriptive Compliance Method, (2) Work Area Compliance Method, and (3) Performance Compliance Method. Without going into all of the nuances associated with each compliance method (we’ll save that for a later blog entry), the Prescriptive Compliance Method provides a straightforward approach to code compliance for additions, alterations, repairs, and changes of occupancy in existing buildings. Essentially, this method requires all new work associated with an alteration to comply with the new construction requirements of the IBC and permits spaces outside of the designated work area to remain as is (unless deemed hazardous or unsafe by the building or fire official). This approach is particularly useful when performing smaller alterations in existing buildings to prevent users from having to evaluate the entire building outside of the work area.

When Massachusetts adopted the 8th Edition of 780 CMR, there were significant amendments to Chapter 34. One of these amendments eliminated IEBC Section 101.5.1 which required buildings utilizing the Prescriptive Compliance Method to comply with the provisions of the 2009 International Fire Code (IFC). This reference to the IFC was important as Chapters 8 and 46 contain requirements that must be met in all existing buildings including components such as interior finishes, elevator operation, vertical opening protection, means of egress, sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems, etc. These requirements vary depending on the occupancy classification. The intent of the reference in IEBC Section 101.5.1 to the IFC was to ensure that a minimum level of fire and life safety was provided in the existing buildings prior to allowing designers to utilize the Prescriptive Compliance Method since it is such a straightforward approach.

The MA amendment eliminating the reference to the IFC actually (likely not intentionally) made the Prescriptive compliance method in 780 CMR 34.00 significantly less restrictive than the base IEBC since the existing buildings do not currently need to comply with the IFC in order to use this method. The code change proposal to be heard at the BBRS meeting next month aims to re-instate the reference to the IFC in IEBC Section 101.5.1. If promulgated back into 780 CMR, this would require users to evaluate their existing buildings to verify compliance with the IFC prior to using the Prescriptive Compliance Method. Other notable changes associated with the code change proposal include not allowing Group R occupancies to utilize the Prescriptive compliance method or the Performance compliance method unless they comply with the 6th Edition or later of 780 CMR 9.00, Fire Protection Systems. This means that older Residential buildings undergoing alterations would likely be required to utilize the Work Area Compliance Method.

The purpose of this code reference is to make sure existing buildings in Massachusetts provide a consistent minimum level of safety for building occupants and emergency responders. The underlying philosophy of this requirement is that only those buildings providing this level of safety should be eligible to utilize the more straightforward Prescriptive Compliance Method that does require analysis, and may require retroactive upgrades, to portions of the building outside of the work area.

For those that are familiar with the predecessor codes in Massachusetts such as the 6th Edition, Chapter 34 always required minimum levels of compliance with means of egress provisions regardless of the scope of work. While the addition of yet another requirement for building designers to meet is always viewed with skepticism, I would argue the correct perception on this change is that the BBRS is correcting an unintentional oversight to align our codes with not only the national standard, but also the same philosophy that has been employed on existing building projects in the state for years.

Check back in on our blog next month for an update on which code change proposals passed and which were denied at the BBRS monthly meeting.