Twitter HQ Investigation Highlights Importance of Catching Changes of Occupancy
Elon Musk has found himself in hot water with the city of San Francisco after reports surfaced that the newly minted Twitter owner had arranged for sleeping quarters to be added to the social media company’s San Francisco headquarters.
The San Francisco Department of Buildings Inspection said on December 7 that it would launch an investigation into the reported renovations. In a tweet, Musk called the investigation an “attack” and questioned the city’s priorities. Coming to his aid, some Twitter users then urged the billionaire entrepreneur, who also owns Tesla and SpaceX, to move Twitter’s main offices out of California.
But experts say the reality is that, in essentially any jurisdiction, if a change of occupancy occurs, codes and standards are in place to ensure that the fire and life safety features of a building also change to appropriately protect the new occupancy. And for good reason—deviating from a building’s intended occupancy classification has resulted in deadly consequences in past instances.
What is ‘change of occupancy’?
A change of occupancy is defined by NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, as a “change in the occupancy classification of a structure or portion of a structure.” It’s important to note that change of occupancy differs from change of use.
The reality is if a change of occupancy occurs, codes and standards are in place to ensure that the fire and life safety features of a building also change to appropriately protect the new occupancy
In a blog published in September, Robin Zevotek, a principal fire protection engineer at NFPA, explained it by saying, “If the work being done creates a change to the occupancy classification it is a change of occupancy, if not, it is a change of use.” In other words, adding flammable liquids to an area of a storage warehouse not intended to store flammable liquids would be change of use; turning that warehouse into an Airbnb would be change of occupancy.
RELATED Read more about occupancy classifications in codes
When either a change of occupancy or a change of use occurs, a review must take place to determine the fire protection systems or other life safety features that might now be required. An assembly occupancy like a nightclub, for instance, will have different code requirements than a hotel.
In the case of Twitter’s offices, a change from an office building to something more akin to a lodging or rooming house occupancy classification could require additional smoke and carbon monoxide alarms that an office space might not. “When the building, fire, and life safety systems were designed and installed, it was under the assumption that people would use this building as a normal office building and that people wouldn’t sleep there,” said Brian O’Connor, a fire protection engineer at NFPA.
Codes and standards even account for the way people behave in different occupancy types. “In a business occupancy, for instance, we expect a certain level of awareness and responsiveness from occupants since they are alert and awake,” said Valeria Ziavras, a fire protection engineer at NFPA. “Additionally, we would expect them to have some familiarity with the building and how to get out in the event of an emergency. Compare that to an occupancy like a lodging and rooming house, where we expect occupants to be sleeping, at least part of the time, which drastically affects the level of awareness and how quickly they can respond to an emergency situation. They may or may not be familiar with the building and how to get out.”
A spokesman for the San Francisco Department of Buildings Inspection echoed these points in a statement sent to CBS News. “We need to make sure the building is being used as intended,” said Patrick Hannan, the department’s communications director. “There are different building code requirements for residential buildings, including those being used for short-term stays. These codes make sure people are using spaces safely.”
Unregulated changes of occupancy can have potentially devastating consequences. Perhaps no example illustrates this better than the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 people in Oakland in December 2016. Dozens of people had been illegally living and working in the abandoned warehouse prior to the fire. At the time, the warehouse hadn’t been inspected in three decades, city records showed, and few seemed to know what was actually going on inside.
“If changes in occupancy or use occur with disregard to the code implications, this could put people’s lives at risk, result in the loss of the property, and have a negative impact on either the local or global economy,” said O’Connor. “Sometimes, we take it for granted when we assume that the lives of the occupants were taken into consideration when changes to the building are made. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, so if you see a change in occupancy or a major change in use occur, be sure to notify your local fire department.”
Top photograph: MatthewKeys via Wikipedia