Several years ago, this author was contacted by someone who was considering purchasing an existing, high-rise residential building that was not protected with an automatic sprinkler system. In order to make the purchase and future ownership of the building attractive, the prospective owner wanted to make some improvements to various areas and systems throughout the building. The prospective owner asked if it was necessary to install an automatic sprinkler system because he was proposing to make some improvements to the building. The prospective owner did not intend to make any changes to the use or occupancy of the building, and there were no existing requirements imposed by the fire official to install sprinkler protection in the building.

At the time of the inquiry, a typical answer might have been "it depends on how this is viewed by the appropriate code officials." Such an answer would not be responsive to the prospective owner's request. There may have been reasons why at that time, the prospective owner did not want regulatory officials involved.


Typically, existing codes required that "alterations to" or "modernizations of" an existing building require the building to comply with the requirements for new construction to the extent practicable.1 The applicable codes would require that new high-rise buildings be protected throughout with an automatic sprinkler system. Ultimately, the code official had the authority to determine what was practicable and therefore, it would have been necessary to explain the project to the code official and have him or her render an opinion.


In addition, some codes as adopted at state or local levels would tie the need to comply with the requirements for new construction to the cost of the construction activity as compared to the value of the building. If a certain percentage was exceeded, the entire building needed to comply with current codes for new construction. While clearly an argument could have been made that, from a fire protection standpoint, sprinkler protection made sense and may eventually be required regardless of whether any work is done in the building, at that particular point in time that was not the question posed by the prospective owner.

The Purpose of Rehabilitation Codes

The above scenario is one example of why rehabilitation codes started to come into play in the United States in the late 1990s. Whether perceived or reality, many felt that the re-use of existing buildings and improvements to existing buildings was discouraged by the current regulatory environment.2 The inability to provide specific responses to questions such as posed above could lead a developer to invest his or her money elsewhere, possibly in a new building where the impact of code requirements was more easily defined, and the uncertainty of doing rehabilitation work in an existing building, and what would be found when doing such work, would not add to the financial uncertainty associated with the project.


Choosing new construction over the re-use of existing buildings resulted in an increased number of unoccupied buildings in many urban areas. In addition, since land was either more available or less expensive in suburban areas, the new construction took place on land that was not previously developed, resulting in what many refer to as "urban sprawl."


At the time, there were various codes available for adoption in the United States. Each of the codes contained requirements that addressed various activities in existing buildings, including repair, alterations, change of occupancy classification and additions. The requirements were typically found in a single chapter at the end of the code or, in another case, a section of a chapter on general requirements. Performance-based codes, clearly another alternative for existing buildings, were in the process of being developed at about the same time.

Going back to the question posed by the prospective owner, the work proposed was not repair nor did it involve a change in occupancy. Therefore, it fell into the broad category of "alteration", which could involve anything from rebuilding an existing wall to the total rehabilitation of the building. One of the things that rehabilitation codes do is to separate the work category referred to as "alteration" or "modernization" into multiple work categories, typically at least three separate work categories. With the additional work categories, today one is more able to respond to questions similar to those posed by the prospective owner. More information on the requirements contained in "rehabilitation codes" can be found in the International Existing Building Code,3 NFPA 50004 and NFPA 101.5


The case study in the sidebar below provides an overview of some aspects of a project in which a rehabilitation code was applied. The Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code predated the model codes cited above and was in fact used as a basis for some of the requirements contained in the model codes that more specifically address existing buildings.2 It should be noted that the building referenced in the case study was not subject to any requirements to upgrade the building prior to the rehabilitation project. The requirements came into play due to a voluntary rehabilitation project proposed by the building owner. Therefore, the base line for the project was that the building complied with all codes in effect that apply to existing buildings not undergoing a rehabilitation project. The new work could not make the building less conforming to existing codes and, as noted in the case study, resulted in some fire protection improvements to the building. The use and occupancy of the building did not change as part of the rehabilitation project.


Fire Protection In Existing Buildings

The introduction of rehabilitation codes in the United States provided a more easily understood and more consistent regulatory environment regarding work in existing buildings. However, even with the rehabilitation codes, work in existing buildings presents interesting challenges to the design team. Unlike new buildings, in which concepts can be more easily changed to address the specific needs, most projects in existing buildings come with bounding conditions. There are aspects of the existing building that may restrict the options available to the design team.

The Gilman Hall case study (see sidebar) illustrates one such restriction. When working in historic buildings, there are aspects of the historic building that must be preserved since they are of historical significance. In the case study, those historical features were able to be maintained by upgrading other fire protection and life safety features of the building using concepts commonly found in prescriptive codes. In other instances, operational features may need to be implemented as a means to compensate for an existing condition that cannot be modified due to its historical significance. When working in historic buildings, the fire protection engineer needs to work closely with the historical preservationist to determine what aspects of the building are of historical significance and then determine an approach that will result in an acceptable level of safety. NFPA 914 provides requirements for protection of historic structures from fire while protecting the elements, spaces and features that make these structures historically or architecturally significant.6 The document contains both a prescriptive approach and a performance-based approach.


When one hears about the application of performance-based codes, it generally involves some new structure that has unique needs and considerations. However, performance-based codes have tremendous application to existing buildings where, like Gilman Hall, some existing features cannot be changed and alternative approaches need to be identified to provide an acceptable level of safety. A prescriptive code, no matter how well it is written, cannot envision all the possible issues that may arise when working in existing buildings, especially buildings of historical significance.


Although not in existence at the time of design for the project cited, many of the concepts of modern performance-based codes were applied to the case study project (below). The project involved the change of occupancy, using traditional prescriptive codes, from a business occupancy to an assembly occupancy due to an increase in occupant load. The use of the building would include the reenactment of a trial during the Colonial period in the U.S. Most likely, there would be more than 50 people in the building during the reenactment. The existing building had a single exit, the door did not swing in the direction of travel, and the floor level was not at the same elevation on both sides of the door. All three features were considered to be of historical significance and all three features were not acceptable using existing prescriptive codes.


One aspect of work that commonly occurs in existing buildings that has not been addressed by the three case studies is to add onto an existing building. The addition may involve an increase in height, an increase in building area, an increase in aggregate floor area, or an increase in the number of stories (not necessarily involving an increase in building height). In addition to making sure that the new work complies with the applicable code requirements, consideration must also be given to maintaining compliance in the existing portion of the building. For example, it is not uncommon for the design team to provide a fire wall to separate the addition from the existing building. The reason for providing the fire wall is that it creates a new building, and therefore the impact on the existing building does not need to be considered. Unfortunately, building area limits in U.S. building codes generally take into account the open perimeter around the building. Adding on to an existing building using a fire wall between the addition and existing building results in a reduced open perimeter for the existing building, so the building area may need to be re-evaluated.


Other Possible Approaches


While the content of this article focused on some new construction or activity within the existing building, there are also projects that involve upgrading existing buildings to meet the requirements of an applicable fire code. The rehabilitation codes referenced in this article do not apply to such projects, but clearly the use of equivalencies, alternative methods and performance-based codes could apply.


With respect to new construction or some new use or occupancy of existing buildings, there are a number of options available. Many jurisdictions now adopt a code that contains rehabilitation provisions that are intended to encourage the re-use of existing building while still providing an acceptable level of safety. The use of equivalencies and alternative methods may be used in addition to the specific prescriptive code requirements. Alternatively, performance-based codes may provide a methodology for determining acceptable protection strategies that would not otherwise be identified.


Lastly, the fire protection engineer should give due consideration to a wide range of protection strategies that may be available. One resource that can be used to determine alternative protection strategies is NFPA 550.7 The risks to be addressed can be determined using a fire risk assessment methodology as outlined in the SFPE Engineering Guide to Fire Risk Assessment.8 The limitations presented by the existing building can be overcome by a thorough analysis of the options available to provide an acceptable level of safety.


William Koffel, Mark Aaby and Clay Aler are with Koffel Associates.



  1. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2000.
  2. "Nationally Applicable Recommended Rehabilitation Provisions," Prepared for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, May, 1997.
  3. International Existing Building Code, International Code Council, Country Club Hills, IL, 2009.
  4. NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2009.
  5. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2009.
  6. NFPA 914, Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2007.
  7. NFPA 550, Guide to the Fire Safety Concepts Tree, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2007.
  8. SFPE Engineering Guide to Fire Risk Assessment, Society of Fire Protection Engineers,

Application of the Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code

By Mark A. Aaby, P.E.


In 2007, building improvements were designed for an existing high-rise residential building consisting of the rehabilitation of the existing dwelling units, the upgrade of selected mechanical and electrical systems, elevator improvements, and consolidation of some common use areas on the Ground Floor. The Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code1 (MBRC) was applied to the project to identify mandatory fire protection and life safety requirements that were triggered by the building rehabilitation.


Through a review of the architectural concept drawings and scope of work for the project, the category of work for the various rehabilitation work areas were classified according to the MBRC. Based on the various classifications of work for this project, a majority of the rehabilitation work areas did not trigger compliance with the codes for new construction. Accordingly, existing code compliant conditions were for the most part deemed acceptable and remained. As an example, at the time the building was constructed in the late 1970s, the exit stairs were not required to be smokeproof enclosures. The MBRC does not require the exit stairs to be smokeproof enclosures. Accordingly, upgrades to the existing stairs to create smokeproof enclosures, as would be required for new high-rise construction, were not required as part of this rehabilitation project.


Another example was the existing limited area sprinkler system which protects common areas. Based on the classifications of work, the MBRC analysis did not require the installation of sprinklers in the nonsprinkler protected portions of the building, unless the work areas included exits or exit access corridors. Furthermore, in lieu of an emergency voice/alarm communication system as is required for new high rise construction, the existing fire alarm system and dwelling unit smoke alarms were permitted to remain.

As illustrated by this case study, utilization of the MBRC facilitated the investment in an existing building, while ensuring that the basic health, safety, and welfare of the building occupants was preserved.


  1. Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code, Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, Annapolis, MD, 2009.

Gilman Hall Case Study

By Clay P. Aler, P.E.

Gilman Hall was the first major academic building on the Charles Street campus of Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, MD. Gilman Hall was carefully based upon Homewood House (1803), beginning the tradition of Federal style academic buildings on campus. The original construction of Gilman Hall was completed in 1915. It is five stories in height with a utility basement, and is considered a historic structure by the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation of Baltimore City. JHU retained the New York City architectural firm of Kliment Halsband Architects to rehabilitate and modernize the existing building through the use of the Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code (MBRC), which references the International Existing Building Code (IEBC).


The rehabilitation of Gilman Hall provides supplementary fire protection and life safety features that do not currently exist in the building, which will include a complete automatic sprinkler system, a standpipe system within the exit stairs, and a new addressable voice evacuation fire alarm system. Egress for Gilman Hall is via two new enclosed exit stairs, which will replace the eight existing open stairs. The original building included an enclosed courtyard open to the environment. As part of the rehabilitation project, the courtyard will be covered with a skylight supported by a state-of-the-art lightweight steel framing system, in effect, creating a four-story tall atrium space. A performance-based analysis was used to size the smoke exhaust system for the atrium. In addition, qualitative analysis was used to justify omission of sprinkler protection at the skylight level of the atrium. The design team worked closely with the Baltimore City Fire Marshal to incorporate the supplementary fire protection and life safety features into Gilman Hall while still maintaining its important historic architectural features.

Performance-Based Case Study

By William E. Koffel, P.E., FSFPE

The goals for the design were limited to life safety from fire and preservation of the features determined to be of historical significance. Although recommended by the fire protection engineer on the project, an automatic sprinkler system was not installed since it was not required by applicable codes. As such, property protection and preservation of the historic structure were not necessarily considered by the stakeholders as critical goals to be met.


A hazard analysis and subsequently a risk analysis were performed to address the life safety considerations. Typical fire scenarios were developed based upon the contents of the building, which were representative of the Colonial Period and therefore did not include many of the contents found in modern buildings. Using computer fire modeling, the level of protection provided was analyzed with the single means of egress from the building. It was determined by the fire protection engineer that an acceptable level of safety (as determined by comparing available safe egress time to time required to safely egress the building) was provided for all but one identified fire scenario. After reviewing the fire scenario and the location and security provided to the site, the stakeholders determined that the fire scenario in question was not a reasonably credible fire scenario. That scenario involved an incendiary fire at the single exit door.


As a result, it was determined that a single means of egress was acceptable. With respect to the door swing, the risk analysis indicated that changing the direction of door swing could result in an increased risk of trips and falls since the floor was not at the same elevation on both sides of the door (there was an immediate step down on the outside of the door). Therefore, operational requirements were put into place to require that a staff person be present at the door during all reenactments and that an announcement be made prior to the reenactment indicating that there is a single means of egress and that the door swings inward.


With automatic detection installed in areas separated from the assembly space, limitations on the fuel packages permitted in the building, the features identified above and after receiving peer review comments, the stakeholders determined that an acceptable level of safety was provided.