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Do I Need to Hire an Architect for My Restaurant Project?

Posted in Uncategorized on July 6, 2010 by planaarchitecture

Of course you do!  Did I mention I’m an architect?  It might seem like a simple question, but it isn’t necessarily depending on the nature of the project.  If you’re constructing a new free-standing building or doing a fit-up in a new shell space the answer is “almost certainly”.  See, I even had to qualify the simple answer.

If you’re taking over an existing facility and making only cosmetic changes you probably won’t need an architect.  But if you plan to do things like adding lighting, receptacles, air conditioning, etc. you may need to hire an electrical/mechanical engineer to do the necessary design work and drawings needed for permits.

So even if you’re only making minor changes to an existing restaurant, before you sign the lease I’d highly recommend you pay an architect for an hour or two of his/her time to look at the facility and identify anything that you may have to bring up to code.  We’ve had clients that didn’t think they needed any more than a health department permit, but when the health dept. did their walk-thru they identified code violations and turned them over to the inspections dept.  Better you know about the landmines before you sign the lease.  (Read my blog on fire sprinkler systems for a really big landmine.)

Likewise, if you’re considering two or more different locations an architect will be able to point out the pros and cons of each space.  Two seemingly identical spaces can be quite different in the eyes of the building codes resulting in significantly different fit-up costs.

And don’t take the landlord’s or real estate agent’s word for anything that pertains to building codes, zoning ordinances or health dept. regulations.  We have a client right now who was assured by the real estate agent that he was in a parking-exempt zone.  I questioned our client on this twice and strongly recommended he get it in writing.  Now that we’re 75% complete with the construction drawings it turns out he does need off-street parking after all.  The mad scramble is on to find enough parking to rent to keep the project alive.

In the vast majority of cases you’ll want to hire an architect even if it’s not required by the inspections department.  You need someone who knows the codes that apply to restaurants, the health dept. regulations in your county, and all of the subtleties that can make the difference between a frustrating and satisfying experience.  And unless time and money are no object, hire someone with lots of experience.  I’ve been at this for over 20 years now and I still learn something new on almost every project.  And just to keep us on our toes, they change the building codes every few years!

No doubt you can hire a young architect just starting out for significantly less than an old grey beard like me, but those savings can vanish easily as the result of innocent mistakes.  The percentage of the architect’s and engineer’s fee relative to the total cost of your project is relatively small.  A 3% savings on their fees by using a less experienced firm can easily cost you double digit percentages.  A past client of ours learned this the hard way.  He hired us for the first of a multiple store franchise agreement.  Thinking he’d learned everything there was to know on the first one, he went to a less expensive firm for the second, a decision that probably cost him 4 times the amount he saved.  And guess what?  He came back to use for store #3. When you consider what you’ll be paying in rent, the little bit more an experienced restaurant architect will charge should more than pay for itself.

Likewise, an experienced architect will have a relationship with not only the code and health officials in the area, but will also have a number of contractors, equipment suppliers and vendors in the area that will do a good job for you.  And perhaps more importantly he/she knows who to avoid!

And we haven’t even talked about aesthetics yet.  An experienced restaurant architect will be able to help you select finishes, furniture and fixtures that enhance your customers experience and give you a durable, low maintenance facility.

So whether you’re starting from scratch or taking over a facility it’s well worth it to consult with an experienced architect early on in the process.



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Accessibility Requirements in Restaurants

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2010 by planaarchitecture

For those who rely on wheelchairs, or cannot see, or wear leg braces, or have limitations in their ability to reach or grasp, or for those who have other physical challenges, the ways in which a restaurant is designed and constructed will affect their desire to patronize a particular place.  In the past I’ve had a number of clients who’ve complained about the expense and space required to meet these needs.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “we’ve been in business for x years and I can count the number of times a person in a wheelchair came in our place on one hand”.

Ten or even five years ago that may have been true.  But I’ve noticed a growing number of folks out and about in motorized wheelchairs lately.  With this added ease of mobility it’s almost certain that we’ll be seeing more physically challenged folks in all sorts of public spaces.  So it’s not only a matter of complying with the law, but also a matter of doing what’s morally right that will, I hope, bring us to be more conscientious about making sure we take their needs into account.  And we need to keep in mind that accessibility concerns are not limited to those applying to wheelchairs.

And if the building code and morality aren’t enough of an incentive, lawsuits will be.  I attended a seminar on accessibility at McDonald’s Hamburger University in Chicago a few years ago and at that time they (being the big target that they are) were seeing a rash of lawsuits, particularly in California and Florida.  Frankly I’m surprised we haven’t seen this become more widespread in recent years, but I have no doubt it’s coming.

Here in North Carolina we’ve had  our own Accessibility Code for many years.  But last year the state adopted the 2003 International Building Code version of the Accessibility Code which is published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI A117.1).  Maybe I was just used to the old code, but so far I’ve found the ANSI version to be more difficult to work with.  I won’t even attempt to try and explain the basics here.  It would take more pages than the actual code itself.

What you do need to know is that if you’re building a new restaurant or putting one in a new shell building, you must comply with the code.  So be prepared to build ramps if you have steps, build rest rooms large enough to meet all the clearances required at the fixtures and at the entrance, construct a portion of service counters at a height that meets code, make sure that the limitations on reaching self service drink and condiment areas is met, etc., etc.

If you are taking over an existing facility that does not comply with current code you are not automatically grandfathered as you might have been in past years.  Under the provisions of the current code grandfathering may only occur if the cost of bringing the entire facility up to code is “disproportional” to the cost of the entire job.  Disproportional basically means 20% of the total cost of the project with certain exceptions.

Disproportionality gets a little tricky depending on the scope of a particular project.  It may mean as little as installing proper door hardware on the entrance(s) or as much as tearing out the existing rest rooms and building new, larger facilities.  In addition to the North Carolina State Building Code, NC has also adopted the Rehabilitation Code which is specifically designed to promote renovation of older buildings that don’t necessarily meet current codes.  It provides some grandfathering for accessibility issues and is more generous in the way it calculates disproportionality.

One issue that comes up often with existing restaurants is access to elevated or sunken seating areas.  These must now be accessible, so plan on installing ramps or bringing everything up or down to the main level.  Ironically, mezzanines (similar to a balcony) do not need to be accessible.

If you’re building or renovating a free-standing restaurant you’ll also need to be concerned about the accessible parking stall and the route from the stall as well as from the public sidewalk to the building.  An anecdote I heard at Hamburger U. was about a lawyer in Florida who would pull into parking lots and check the parking for compliance with the code.  If it was up to code he’d move on, but if it wasn’t he’d go inside under the assumption that more violations would be found.  These were the places he then targeted for lawsuits.

If you’re a tenant in a shopping center the parking and sidewalks are usually beyond your responsibility, but not always.  We’re working on a project right now in a building that has only two tenants without any accessible entrances.  The city is requiring that we make our tenant’s space accessible with a ramp and sidewalk to the street.

As you can see there are a lot of complexities to the Accessibility Code.  While many requirements such as size of doors, height of sinks, toilet stall sizes, etc. there are many issues that are less clear and dependant on the specifics of the site or building.  Before making any financial commitments to a particular space or building it is well worth paying an architect for a couple hours of time to evaluate the existing conditions.  Not knowing what you’re getting into can be a lot more expensive down the road.

Fire Sprinkler Systems in Restaurants

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on March 10, 2010 by planaarchitecture

Over the past five years or so there’s been a lot of conversation and change at the state and local levels about under what circumstances the building code should require fire sprinklers in restaurants. This came about both as a result of deadly night club fires around the country and by North Carolina’s adoption of the International Building Code (IBC).

Please bear with me through a somewhat dry history of the building code. The reason for giving this background will be evident later on.

Up until the 2000 IBC code was adopted, the rules were fairly clear cut, requiring sprinklers only when the floor area of a restaurant exceeded 5000 sq. ft., and even more under most circumstances depending on the construction materials used in the building and other factors. When the IBC came into effect, not much changed at first. The minimum area was still 5000 sq. ft. but now regardless of construction material types. Two other conditions were added requiring sprinklering if the number of occupants exceeded 300 people or if the restaurant was located above or below the ground level.

When the 2006 version of the IBC was adopted a big change came with it. The maximum number of occupants in a non-sprinklered building was reduced to 100. Suddenly thousands of restaurants and potential restaurant locations in shopping centers became problematic. If a non-sprinklered existing 100+ occupant restaurant wants to make major renovations requiring building permits, under most circumstances they’ll be required to install sprinklers.

It’s important to note that we’re talking about the number of occupants, not the number of seats. This is particularly significant for restaurants with counter service because the number of occupants is calculated based on one person per five square feet in the queue line (seating areas are calculated at 1 person per 15 sq. ft.). A restaurant with 50 seats can easily become a 100 occupant space if it has a long queue line.

A number of us in the restaurant design field tried to get the state to distinguish between businesses that are primarily night clubs, bars or restaurants that cater primarily to the late night crowd with higher alcohol consumption and more food oriented places. We tried to argue that a McDonald’s with 101 occupants doesn’t pose the same potential hazard as a bar that’s elbow room only for any televised sporting event.

We won a victory of sorts in that the code now distinguishes between restaurants and night clubs requiring sprinklers for restaurants with more than 300 occupants and night clubs with more than 100 occupants. Unfortunately the definition of “nightclub” can and has been interpreted by some code officials to apply to any restaurant that serves alcohol, has more than 1 person per 15 sq. ft. and has a sound system, even if it’s just a boom box.

For anyone who’s considering buying or renovating an existing restaurant that does not have a sprinkler system, please consult a local code official or architect before or during your due diligence period to determine if you’ll need to install sprinklers. This also holds true if you’re looking at a new space that’s not sprinklered.

The cost of installing sprinklers in an existing building can be prohibitive depending on several factors, primarily the cost of bringing the water line from the street to the building. I’ve had more than one project killed by this expense.

As time goes by this will become less and less of an issue because most new buildings are being equipped with sprinklers. But until then when you walk into a restaurant the first place to look is up.

Accomodating Smokers in the wake of the Smoking ban

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 8, 2010 by planaarchitecture

It’s been less than two months since the new North Carolina smoking in restaurants ban went into affect, but many establishments are already scrambling to provide outdoor accommodations for smokers. This is great news for awning companies, patio builders and the companies that make those propane heaters.

But restaurateurs need to be aware that they may create new problems for themselves trying to accommodate smokers. First of all, if you’re going to install an awning, build a deck or even just pour a concrete patio, you need a building permit. And getting a permit for these kinds of structures will also trigger a review by the zoning department who will be checking to see that you’re not violating any ordinances.

One thing in particular to be aware of is that the new seating area you’ve created must have adequate parking to support it. You may also be asked to show that the additional impervious area (surfaces that can’t absorb rain water) you’re adding doesn’t exceed the limitation for your particular property.

You also need to be aware that the new law anticipated these outdoor seating areas and placed limitations on what you can do. According to SmokeFree.NC.Gov, smoking is not allowed in an enclosed area. An area is considered to be enclosed if it has (A) a roof or other overhead covering and (B) walls or side coverings on all sides or on all sides but one.

And there’s still some confusion on who’s exempt from the law. Although most food and beverage facilities are required to comply there are a few exceptions. One of the more surprising are restaurants that serve only beverages that use single service containers (paper/plastic cups and the like) provided the beverages are not made from raw apples or potentially hazardous beverages made from raw fruits or vegetables. However if you’re required to have ABC permits then the exception doesn’t apply. So if, for example, you’re a coffee shop and use paper cups only then you can allow smoking.

There are a few other exceptions including private clubs (under some very specific conditions) and restaurants that are exempt from the state’s sanitation laws.

So the bottom line is to first verify that you’re required to comply. If you think you’re not I’d recommend checking with an attorney. And if you want to build an outdoor smoking area consult with a design professional before you spend a lot of money on something you’ll be forced to tear down.