MA State Building Code Adopts IBC & Changes Are Put to Test…

By Steven Watchorn, LEED AP BD+C and Dennis Basquill

On February 6, 2011, Massachusetts will bid farewell to the 7th Edition of the State Building Code (780 CMR), and retire the process by which the State Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) have been scripting a single state-wide building code, cover-to-cover, since 1975.  In its place will be the 8th edition, which adopts the 2009 International Building Code (IBC) with Massachusetts amendments.  Officially, February 6th marks the end of the 6-month grace period under which applicants have the choice of applying for a commercial building permit under either the 7th edition or the new 8th edition. 

For many, the adoption of the IBC has been long awaited in Massachusetts and will make navigating the code easier for those who are more familiar with the international codes.  New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and the majority of other states had adopted the IBC back in 2004.  Whether you are an Owner, Contractor, Architect or Engineer, there will be some significant changes to be made aware of.

Perhaps some of the most significant changes will be the requirements for alterations and changes in use to existing buildings (formerly, Chapter 34).  The 8th edition has adopted the International Existing Building Code (IEBC) in the place of Chapter 34, with some amendments. 

Previous editions used a ‘hazard index’ rating system to identify dangers in changing any building to a specific use.  Renovations that resulted in a hazard index of one or none were allowed, to an extent, to make repairs and alterations to building components without forcing all of the requirements for new construction (changes in use that result in a hazard index of 2 – 6 allowed fewer exceptions).  The requirements for new construction are more difficult and more costly to meet in renovation projects.   

Whereas the 7th edition assigned each use a Hazard Index of anywhere from 1 to 6, the IEBC classifies only 4 levels, and each use is assigned a different hazard index for: Means of Egress requirements; Height and Area requirements; and Exterior Wall requirements.  What this means will vary for each project, and design professionals will have to carefully evaluate how the differences between the 7th and 8th editions will affect each project on a case-by-case basis.

CBI was recently engaged to perform design services for the conversion of a former elementary school into Condominiums.  Originally planned to be filed under the new 8th edition, CBI soon discovered that a change in use to residential would trigger many structural requirements written for new construction.  The 7th edition, however, allowed, to an extent, minor modifications without forcing some of these structural requirements.

While it made sense to complete the project quickly and file under the 7th edition before it expired, which would result in significant cost savings for the Owner, there were some other building components that would be subjected to more restrictive requirements under the 7th edition.

One of the advantages to filing under the 8th edition would have been that, unless they are deemed by the local building official to be structurally deficient and/or hazardous, the existing stairs do not need to be brought up to the code for new construction.  Under the 7th edition, Change in Use to Residential, the stairs and railings must meet the code for new construction, without exceptions.

For this conversion project, changes will be necessary to make the existing stair handrails and guards compliant.  Specifically, the “ladder effect” (horizontal spindles) on guardrails is now allowed under the 8th edition but is not allowed at all under the 7th edition.  The handrails will also need to be raised to meet the height requirements and vertical guard rails will need to be added on all stairs.

There are numerous other benefits and drawbacks to filing under the 8th edition.  What is for sure is that the new code has changed the design landscape in Massachusetts.  Owners, Contractors, and all Design Professionals now have an opportunity to design, create and provide buildings that meet international standards while at the same time provide solutions to local and regional challenges.