Author(s): Ron Cote. Published on July 1, 2015.

NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, is unique among codes in its applicability to both new construction and existing buildings. Three common questions help put that applicability into perspective.

Is NFPA 101 applicable to an existing building not undergoing rehabilitation?

Yes. The code applies to both new construction and existing buildings. The term “existing building” encompasses the features, elements, arrangements, and systems as they currently exist—what the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) would see and evaluate during an inspection of an existing building.

Requirements applicable to existing buildings might be less stringent than those specifically presented as being applicable to new construction only. The existing building must comply with the requirements presented as applicable to existing buildings and the requirements that are presented without differentiation between new and existing. To assist the user, the requirements for application to a given occupancy are typically presented in a pair of occupancy chapters—one for new construction and one for existing buildings. For example, a new hospital corridor must provide a minimum width of 8 feet (244 centimeters) in accordance with Chapter 18; an existing hospital corridor must provide a minimum width of 4 feet (122 centimeters) in accordance with Chapter 19.

Are non-complying features, elements, arrangements, and systems grand-fathered so they need not comply with the requirements for existing buildings?

No. The code makes no provision for grandfathering or waivers. Rather, AHJs can modify a requirement for existing buildings where it is evident that a reasonable degree of safety is provided in the absence of full compliance, and where retroactive application of the subject requirement would be impractical, in the judgment of the AHJ.

The AHJ can allow an equivalency—meaning that the intent of a prescriptive requirement is met by doing something other than that which is required—if the AHJ judges the resulting arrangement to provide equivalent protection. Further, where the AHJ requires a violation to be brought into compliance, the AHJ can allow a limited but reasonable time, commensurate with the magnitude of expenditure, disruption of services, and degree of hazard.

How long do requirements for new buildings, applied at the time of construction, continue to apply to what is now an existing building?

Let’s consider a building constructed new in 2010 in compliance with the 2009 edition of the code, since that was the edition the jurisdiction enforced at the time of construction. The jurisdiction adopted and began enforcing the 2015 edition on January 1, 2015. For the period after the building was constructed and the jurisdiction enforced the 2009 edition, the building was judged under the requirements for new construction. After January 1, 2015, the building was judged under the requirements for existing buildings according to the 2015 edition.

But existing features not required by provisions applicable to existing buildings may not be removed if they remain requirements applicable to new construction. In the case of the hospital corridor, an 8-foot corridor built to comply with new construction requirements is not permitted to decrease to the 4 feet permitted for existing buildings.

RON COTE, P.E. is principal life safety engineer at NFPA.