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Consider new Wisconsin commercial building code when determining when to build

Consider new Wisconsin commercial building code when determining when to build

October 2, 2017

Wisconsin property owners who have commercial building projects in mind, may want to get to them sooner than later. The state has adapted the 2015 ICC (International Code Council) building codes, requiring all municipalities to adopt it as a minimum standard with an anticipated effective date of January 1, 2018. Any plans submitted prior to the effective date may be reviewed under the current building code.

The new code means many changes for commercial property owners, including several pros and cons.

New commercial building code eases some aspects

The new code is a mixed bag of good and not-so-good news. On the plus side:

  1. Guest lodging, when at a small scale, may be allowed to use the Residential Building Codes in place of a more stringent Commercial Building Code.
  2. Wood-framed structures built atop noncombustible base structures now allow for a greater number of total stories and height. This is known as a “Pedestal” building.
  3. Accessibility provisions are relaxed within church areas not exceeding 300 square feet.
  4. Mezzanines requiring two exits no longer require direct access to a means of egress. This may be beneficial if the mezzanine is located within the center of a building or space.
  5. Basements are now allowed in buildings with an unlimited area classification.
  6. Cross-laminated timber is now recognized as an alternate material to heavy timber construction.
  7. Mercantile occupancy rating calculations are reduced to one-half the previous codes. This may allow for fewer exits, restrooms, and more flexibility in the overall design.
  8. Drinking fountains may be substituted with alternate means of drinking water. Note this exception still grants the building department(s) final say on what is deemed acceptable.
  9. Two unisex restrooms may be provided where two gender specific restrooms were currently required.

New commercial code complicates others

Conversely, the new code may complicate your plans, especially when it comes to fire safety, and add to lead times. Here are some of the basics:

  1. Private parking garages must provide more fire barriers—one for every 1,000 square feet. For example, a 3,000 square-foot garage building associated with an apartment complex may need only one barrier now. As of 2018, it will require three.
  2. Sprinkler exceptions are no longer allowed to substitute for a one-hour fire-resistant rated building.
  3. In otherwise non-sprinklered buildings, large assembly uses on an occupied roof would require sprinkler protection for the stories below. One example may be the addition of a rooftop dining or bar area.
  4. Sprinkler systems, with some exceptions, are now required in furniture factories, sales floors and storage areas.
  5. Sprinkler requirements in basements will become more stringent.
  6. High-rise buildings will require additional fire service elevators.
  7. Energy-efficiency requirements continue to increase. A more efficient building may save money over time but will add to the initial construction cost.

It’s important to note that not all of the above may apply to your project as the codes vary some according to the complexity, size or hazards of a specific building. And in some cases, you may wish to build according to one of the newer ICC codes, in which case you will need a variance petition.

It sounds like a headache, and it can be. But a solid, experienced design professional—especially when part of a design-build team—can guide you on the direction that’s best for you and your project.