Archive for International Building Code

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.