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Smart Codes - Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code
Will Shoken, BCI

I recently attended a Smart Codes Training Session given by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. The Smart Codes, or officially designated as the Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code, took effect June 1, 2001. The code applies to all jurisdictions throughout the state and covers work on all existing buildings over one year old. The purpose of the code is to permit and encourage improvements to existing buildings that maintain or improve "health, safety, and welfare" without requiring full compliance with the building code. An existing building may contain elements that do not comply with current codes for new construction, for example egress travel distance, dead-end corridor length, or ceiling heights. These elements are allowed to remain as long as the work does not decrease the level of safety that currently exists in the building. For example, a 30-minute corridor partition may remain where a one-hour rating would be required for new buildings, or a stair other than a 7/11 riser/tread ratio may remain where it is required in new buildings. The Smart Codes separate rehabilitation requirements from those of new construction, however new elements must be constructed to current code standards. In addition, the local code official does retain the authority to cite a condition that does not comply with basic life safety provisions for all existing buildings in the local code.

All work in a rehabilitation project is classified into one of five categories. A single project may include multiple categories of work, and each category determines the amount of code requirements. The categories are as follows, in order from simpler to more complex:

  • Repair - Patching, restoration, or minor replacement of materials, components, or fixtures for the purposes of maintaining the item in good or sound condition. In other words, fixing something that's broken.
  • Renovation - Extensive repairs or replacement to load bearing elements, such as an entire wall system or a kitchen "face lift." Renovations are comprised of replacing most of an element either to fix a problem or make an upgrade. Renovations do not include reconfiguration of a space.
  • Modifications - Reconfiguration of a space by eliminating a door or window, the reconfiguration or extension of an existing system, or installation of additional equipment. For example, taking out a boiler and installing a forced air system.
  • Reconstruction - The reconfiguration of a space that affects egress or over 50% of the building area or an occupancy classification.
  • Addition - An increase in building area, aggregate floor area, or number of stories of a structure.

Provisions in the Smart Codes are also made for changes of occupancy involving a change in the application of the local building codes. Only a change in occupancy to a more hazardous use triggers requirements for compliance with the new construction code standards in that hazard area. Rehabilitation work on historic buildings, including those listed or eligible for listing on the National Register, designated under law as a historic property, or certified as a contributing resource within a historic district, is eligible for special treatment and certain exemptions from code requirements.

The rehabilitation standards are limited to the "rehabilitation work area," designated as the portion of the building affected by the renovation, modification, or reconstruction. Another important element in the Smart Codes is that in rehabilitation projects, full compliance with the materials and methods standards for new buildings is not required when replacing existing materials, elements, or components. An example given at the session was the rear porches found in many urban row houses. These wood framed rear porches can be rebuilt without the current separation requirements as long as there is no reconfiguration of the space.

Automatic sprinklers and manual fire alarms are required when rehabilitation projects are in the reconstruction category (exceeds 50% of the floor area), and then only when the existing building provisions of the State Fire Prevention Code require automatic sprinklers.

In order to encourage rehabilitation projects the Smart Codes allow alternatives when requirements impose an undue hardship for technical reasons. For example if there is no room in the existing building to meet requirements for stair landings, riser/tread geometry, or width, alternate stair configurations are allowed if approved by the local code official. Preliminary meetings with code officials are encouraged, and sometimes required for complex projects, in order to determine the specific provisions of the codes to be applied.

An example of the application of Smart Codes is the typical garden apartment rehabilitation project comprised of upgrades to a group of rental apartment buildings, including new carpeting, wall finishes, lighting in lobby and corridors, new cabinets, fixtures, appliances, and window replacement. No reconfiguration of spaces is planned with no extension of systems or elements, therefore the project is classified a Renovation. Under this classification, sprinklers are not required, and no changes to the electrical systems including installation of GFIC are required. In addition, the work on existing elements need only to comply with existing materials and methods levels, and even though the height and configuration of the existing balcony railings are not compliant

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