FAQ: Massachusetts Existing Building Code Requirements

One of the most frequent topics we receive questions on is existing building code requirements. There is often a lot of confusion for commercial construction projects in existing buildings relative to what upgrades will be triggered by the planned scope of work, if any. In our opinion, answering that question requires experience and an in-depth understanding of the requirements and scoping language for existing buildings. Here are a few of the most common questions we receive:

What requirements govern commercial construction projects in existing buildings in Massachusetts?

The Massachusetts State Building Code 8th Edition (780 CMR) is an amended version of the 2009 International Building Code (IBC). Within the Massachusetts amendments to the 2009 IBC, Section 3401.1 deletes Chapter 34 Existing Structures in its entirety and replaces it with the International Existing Building Code (IEBC), 2009 Edition, with Massachusetts amendments. This amended version of the International Existing Building Code is referred to as the Existing Building Code of Massachusetts.

This code governs repairs, renovations, alterations, changes in use, and additions to existing buildings including those that are historic.

It is also helpful to know that there are additional existing building scoping requirements contained in Section 102.6 of 780 CMR. These requirements outline the general philosophy the code takes with existing buildings that were originally constructed under previous codes and have been legally occupied. These scoping requirements provide a clarity on fundamental understandings relative to previously approved existing conditions, safety features which may no longer be required in the new code, and minimum levels of safety for egress, lighting and ventilation.

Accessibility requirements to public areas in buildings are covered by 521 CMR, the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board requirements. All of the accessibility requirements within the Massachusetts Existing Building Code have been deleted and replaced with a reference to 521 CMR. It should be noted that 521 CMR has a different set of scoping requirements that are unique to that code.

Where can I find the Massachusetts amendments to the 2009 International Existing Building Code?

The Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) website contains electronic copies of the amendments. They can be found at the following link: Link to Massachusetts Amendments. The applicable version of the Massachusetts amendments is located in the amendment section of the web site and are dated 6-20-2014. Please note that electronic versions of the building code posted on this website are not official. Official copies must be purchased from the state bookstore. Additionally, there is a helpful official interpretation issued by the BBRS on certain applications of the Massachusetts Existing Building Code requirements that can be found at the following link: BBRS Official Interpretations.

How do I use the Massachusetts Amendments with the base 2009 IBC or 2009 IEBC?

The BBRS recommends the following process when evaluating code compliance in accordance with 780 CMR, the Massachusetts State Building Code:

  1. Find the topic in the base code (either the 2009 IBC or 2009 IEBC)
  2. Check the Massachusetts amendments to either document to see if the base language is changed in anyway under the “8th Edition Base Volume” link on the BBRS website.
  3. Check to see if any subsequent changes to the 8th Edition base volume has occurred by looking under the “Check Amendments since August 2010” portion of the BBRS web site.

A building official requested a Chapter 34 report or existing building code analysis. What do I need to include?

First, if your project is a simple repair, it may not even require a permit. Section 105.2 of 780 CMR outlines the types of repair work that are exempt from permit. These include cosmetic upgrades such as painting, carpeting, tiling, and similar finish work.

If your work does require a permit, Section of the Massachusetts Existing Building Code states that the code official can request an investigation and evaluation of the existing building in accordance with the provisions of this code. There is no specific form that needs to be filled out to document this analysis. The level of analysis needed will vary depending on the scope of the project and the condition of the existing building. The investigation and evaluation is required to minimally document the effects of the proposed work on at least the structural, means of egress, fire protection, energy conservation, lighting, hazardous materials, and ventilation for the space under consideration and potentially the entire building if impacted by the proposed work. The results of this analysis are required to be submitted to the building official in written form.

The analysis should also indicate the compliance method that is used to perform the evaluation. The Massachusetts Existing Building Code contains three different compliance options:

  1. The Prescriptive Compliance Method contained in Chapter 3
  2. The Work Area Compliance Method contained in Chapter 4-12
  3. The Performance Compliance Method contained in Chapter 13

For each permit, only 1 compliance method is allowed to be used. If you select to use the Work Area methodology you are permitted to identify multiple scopes of work (i.e. Level 1 Alteration and Repair) on the same permit.

Who can prepare an existing building code analysis?

780 CMR and the Massachusetts Existing Building Code do not outline a set of minimum credentials to prepare this investigation and analysis. Most often it is a registered design professional, such as an architect, engineer, code consultant, or some combination thereof.

What compliance methodology should I use?

Answering this question really requires an understanding of the planned project and the condition of the existing building. We have tried to outline, in general, the conditions when we recommend use of each of the compliance methodologies:

  1. Prescriptive Compliance Method: This methodology is based on outlining scoping criteria for different types of work (i.e. addition, alteration, change in use, etc.). It follows the general philosophy that new work should meet new construction requirements and existing previously approved conditions can remain. There is not language that addresses specific applications, so it leaves the application of the scoping criteria up to interpretation. We find this methodology most useful on projects in relatively new buildings that are generally code compliant, small projects with very limited scope, or substantial renovation projects where the substantial replacement of the interior of the building is being replaced.
  2. Work Area Compliance Method: This methodology is based on first defining the classification of the work to be performed and the “work area”. The definition of “work area” should be reviewed, as it specific to reconfigured space. The aforementioned BBRS interpretations provide a useful example of how to determine the “Work Area”. Unlike the Prescriptive Compliance Method, this methodology has more specific language for certain applications, which can help limit room for differing interpretations on when retroactive upgrades are required. We find this methodology most useful where there is a significant renovation project to a portion of the building, with portions of the existing building remaining unaltered.
  3. Performance Compliance Method: This methodology is a scoring system. Positive points are given to safety features and negative points are given to deficient conditions. A passing score is needed for the approach to be acceptable. This methodology is most useful where there is a known deficient condition with one system that will remain that is offset by other safety features that may exceed the minimum code requirements. For instance, work occurring within an existing building which has various shafts which are not enclosed in fire rated construction, but the building does have a compliant sprinkler system and fire alarm/detection system. This method may be useful to use if it is impractical to upgrade the construction of the shafts within the building. We find this methodology to be used much less in practice when compared with the Prescriptive or Work Area methodologies, however is a valuable tool to have in your back pocket on existing buildings with unique or challenging circumstances.

As you can tell from the questions above, the Massachusetts Existing Building Code can be a puzzling and intimidating document to navigate. Knowing where to begin and the various options available is a critical first step in making sure your next existing building project gets off on the right foot.

Application of any information provided, for any use, is at the reader’s risk and without liability to Code Red Consultants. Code Red Consultants does not warrant the accuracy of any information contained in this blog as applicable codes and standards change over time. The application, enforcement and interpretation of codes and standards may vary between Authorities Having Jurisdiction and for this reason, registered design professionals should be consulted to determine the appropriate application of codes and standards to a specific scope of work.