New or Old, Building Codes Address High Rise Sprinklers

By Frank Fortino

In our fast paced City, we spend quite a bit of time focused on what’s new – the new buildings and materials that keep updating and improving our skyline. This drive for new has pushed the DOB to already update to 2008 Building Code to the 2014 Building Code.  As we catch our breath and prepare for this next round, it’s important to consider that many of our Buildings were built under prior iterations of the Code. Thus the update to the new Code isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.

Take a recent case we’ve been involved in. A building was constructed in 1973 and therefore complied with the 1968 Building Code. At the time, the Code did not call for a building to have sprinklers or generators.

LL 5/73 required that buildings exceeding 100 feet be equipped either with sprinklers or compartmentation with stair pressurization. This was open to interpretation on a case by case basis, with some exemptions to the sprinkler protection granted.

A decade later, LL 16/84 lowered the height requirements to 75 feet, and removed the possibility of exemptions. Yet it did not retroactively mandate sprinklers for existing buildings.

This held up for 20 years, until LL 26/04 reopened the books and amended the Code to require buildings over 100 feet tall to have a fully system of automatic sprinklers. Appreciating the scale of the task, a deadline of 2019 was established to complete the work.

So, back to that 1973 building. If the building originally complied with LL 5/73, and the work was signed off before October 22, 2004, then that building is in the clear. If the building decided not to comply with LL 5/73, then it falls under the requirements of LL 26/04.

What’s telling here is that the DOB really is taking a long view on this matter, and encouraging owners to do the same. The fact is, safety requirements dictate how we build our buildings, and it’s been proven that buildings need sprinklers. So, while building owners may have previously considered the costs of upgrading their buildings as discretionary, they really are not.

At the end of the day, all buildings over 100 feet tall will have sprinklers. And that’s better news for all of us.