#101Wednesdays: What's New? (And For That Matter, What's Existing?)

Blog Post created by gharrington Employee on Feb 1, 2017


We periodically get questions here at NFPA HQ about how the Life Safety Code gets applied to existing buildings. New construction is usually pretty straightforward: design the building in accordance with the prescriptive requirements for new construction and call it a day. (Sometimes easier said than done, but in general that’s the way it goes.) But how does it work with a 100 year old hotel? Or a 10 year old hospital? Or any existing building? And what about changing the physical configuration or use of an existing building? That’s where things start to get interesting and we have to dig a little deeper into the Code.


When applying the Code, it must first be determined whether the building is new or existing. Seems simple enough, but it’s not always obvious. The 100 year old hotel is pretty obviously existing, but what about the 10 year old hospital? Maybe it’s existing, but it could also be new based on the Code; it’s dependent on the definition of ‘existing building’ in Chapter 3:* Existing Building. A building erected or officially authorized prior to the effective date of the adoption of this edition of the Code by the agency or jurisdiction.


As a hypothetical example, let’s say a jurisdiction adopted the 2015 edition of NFPA 101 with an effective date of June 1, 2016. Any building constructed or authorized prior to 1/1/16 would be considered an existing building, and the Code would apply accordingly. By default, anything constructed or authorized on or after 1/1/16 would be new. Jurisdictions typically establish by policy what is meant by “authorized.” It might mean the building permit was issued prior to the Code’s effective date. If the building permit was issued on 5/30/16, the building might be required to meet the new construction requirements of the previously adopted edition of the Code, provided it received its certificate of occupancy within some specified time-frame. Once the building is complete and occupied, it is instantly an existing building under the currently adopted edition of the Code.


Seems logical, but how can a brand new building be required to only meet the less restrictive requirements for existing buildings? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The key is in and* Existing life safety features that exceed the requirements for new buildings shall be permitted to be decreased to those required for new buildings.* Existing life safety features that do not meet the requirements for new buildings, but that exceed the requirements for existing buildings, shall not be further diminished.


Even though the building in my example is existing, it was built to the new construction requirements of the previously adopted edition, and any life safety features that meet the requirements for new under the current edition must be maintained as required for new. Consider the hospital example; if it was new construction under the previously adopted edition and required 8 ft wide corridors, the 8 ft wide corridors must be maintained because new health care requires 8 ft corridors in the currently adopted edition, even though existing health care only requires 4 ft corridors. If the hospital had 10 ft wide corridors, they might be able to be reduced down to 8 ft; however, it would have to be determined whether they were required to be 10 ft for a particular reason (possibly as part of an equivalency or performance-based design). Be careful when reducing or eliminating any existing life safety features; it’s always a good idea to check with the AHJ first.


Now consider a much older hospital with 3 ft corridors. We sometimes get the question, “Are the existing occupancy provisions of NFPA 101 intended to be applied retroactively?” The answer is, YES. Based on the existing health care provisions of the currently adopted edition, the 3 ft corridors would need to be widened to 4 ft, even if no change is being made to the facility. The Code prescribes minimum requirements for safety to life from fire and similar emergencies in both new and existing buildings. For the most part, all buildings must comply with, at least, the requirements for existing buildings.


Where changes are made to an existing building, such as reconfiguration of a space or a change in the way the building is going to be used, the requirements of Chapter 43, Building Rehabilitation, will apply. Under older Code editions (pre-2006), any change had to comply with the requirements of new construction. This was often impractical for older, existing buildings. Chapter 43 tempers the requirements to promote the adaptive reuse of existing buildings. In some cases, the existing occupancy requirements apply. In others, new construction requirements apply. The application depends on the rehabilitation work category, which is a subject for another day.


Now if you happen to attend a Life Safety Code seminar that I’m facilitating and I ask in which chapter would you have to look to determine whether an existing business occupancy can eliminate its emergency lighting to reduce maintenance costs, you will emphatically reply…. “Chapter 38, New Business Occupancies!” The reason is, of course, an existing life safety feature can be eliminated only where it is not required for new construction. Hopefully this clears up some misconceptions. Feel free to comment below if you have questions or comments. Thanks for reading, and until next time, stay safe!


Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!


Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to and click on “Free access to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101.”


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