Is This Structure Worth Saving?

This article was first published in Minnesota Claims Magazine, September/October 2012

Interpreting the requirements for structural building shell modifications based on applicable building codes can be a challenging and sometimes frustrating endeavor. Proper code reference materials include The International Building Code (IBC) Chapter 34 on “Existing Structures”, The International Residential Code (IRC) Appendix J on “Existing Buildings and Structures”, the Minnesota State Building Code (MSBC) Chapter 1311 on “Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings” and by reference of the Minnesota Code – the 2000 Guidelines for the Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings (GREB).

A common scenario faced in our industry is assessment of a partially damaged structure to determine the viability of saving all or some portion of the remaining building shell and if the damaged portion can be repaired with “like” means and methods that were originally employed. Quite often reference is made that some portion of the existing structure does not meet current code requirements, whether the damaged portion or not, and therefore nothing can be salvaged or simply repaired without significant and potentially costly upgrades. Thus informed, the insured submits a claim for a major retrofit or a completely new building even though the damage may have been quite limited. The question becomes – Are the upgrades (1) required and (2) justified?

Based on review of the various codes it is beneficial, although not required, to try and identify the project as an alteration, reconstruction, rehabilitation, renovation or a repair as defined in Section 3403 of the IBC as different requirements apply. A licensed engineer will judge which definition applies but a building official could make a final determination, even though there is subjectivity involved and the strict definitions appear to overlap. It can be beneficial to engage the building official(s) having jurisdiction early in the process to clarify their requirements and what, if anything will need to be submitted for a permit such as an engineered set of repair drawings and specifications. At this time, to the building official’s position, it is possible to provide a convincing argument or there may be room for negotiation and consideration of alternatives.

Ideally, both the carrier and insured’s consultants would concur on the project category, existing structural members’ condition and thus required and reasonable upgrades, and a scope of work. All options should be considered and pursued with regard to efficient cost control and necessary upgrades while maintaining the intent of the code and safety of the general project. Unfortunately, everybody does not always agree and resolution of the scope of work can be delayed, drawing the ire of all involved. Although codes will be referenced and building officials consulted by the design professionals, it should always be remembered that building code requirements are prescriptive and deviations are permitted according to various sections within Chapter 1300 of the MNSBC and Chapter 1311.

All team members are certainly responsible for the safety of the public, but licensed design professionals such as structural engineers are more likely to be held to the standard of care as noted in the IBC, “… to maintain or increase the current degree of public safety, health and general welfare in existing buildings while permitting repair, alteration, change of occupancy…”. “Maintaining” the current degree of public safety can quite often involve no more than utilizing the same means, methods and materials involved in the original design, particularly if they provide a successful service history.

In fact, Section 1311.411 of the MNSBC allows the minimum design loads for a building to be “the loads applicable at the time the building was constructed, provided that no dangerous condition is created.” Section 411 goes on to state, “Structural members that are found to be unsound or dangerous shall comply with the applicable requirements of the MNSBC for new construction.” The code recognizes the inevitable subjectivity in the terms “unsound” or “dangerous” and provides criteria in Section 411.1 “as determined by a registered design professional” that if met, will require structural upgrades.

So where does that leave us with regard to necessary and code based structural upgrades? Yes, review the Minnesota State Building Code and any other applicable building codes. Review specifically Chapters 1311 to focus on the Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings. Try to define and categorize the project based on code definitions in order to establish a starting point and reference the criteria in Chapter 1311.411.2 to determine if “unsound” or “dangerous” conditions exist. But the final scope of structural upgrades required for the project, and its eventual success, will also consider issues such as cost, constructability, safety, and reasonable judgement, which extend beyond the generics of the building code. The final scope of structural upgrades will involve: Building official interpretations; Prescriptive building code requirements; Cost; Engineering analysis and judgment; Contractor methods of constructability; Potential change in building use or occupancy; Resolution of perceived or real unsafe or dangerous conditions And never forget that amid the chaos that can easily be associated with the claims process, the overriding objective is to safeguard the general welfare of the public and restore the structure to a safe and sound condition.