Small Project Design

Community HTML

BI(h)OME (by Kevin Daly Architects)

Quick Links

Who we are

AIA Small Project Design (SPD) Knowledge Community supports, celebrates, and promotes small projects by engaging designers and the public.

Expand all | Collapse all

Can or should this building be saved

  • 1.  Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 02-25-2021 05:17 PM
    We have been asked to help with an early 20th century brick building.   It is a small structure with 2 stories of residential above 1 floor of commercial store fronts. Over time it has become so out whack with modern codes that one wonders if it can or should be saved.

    With multiple sale of the property and land the building has come to have zero lot line clearances on all sides.   Of course there are windows and opening on all sides.  The stair leading from the street rises over 13 feet in a steep single flight to the second floor not in a rated enclosure.  There's a quasi second exit across a narrow wood exit balcony at the rear.   In short nothing works .  It is about to be surrounded on two sides with a new 5 story apartment building and it is in a historic district.

    The Owner wants to dress it up and keep people renting.  Parts can be made safer but the lot lines aren't going to shift?

    What are the responsibilities of the various parties: the Fire Marshal, Building Official, Architect, Government responsibility toward the public and each other with such a structure.

    Peter Carlsen AIA
    Carlsen & Frank Architects
    Saint Paul MN

  • 2.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 02-26-2021 06:02 PM
    With all that embodied carbon Peter, it would be a shame to tear it down. With the technology we have available and what we know about sustainability I’d try to safe the building and bring it up to code. Even zero lot lines can be addressed in a number of ways.


  • 3.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 03-02-2021 11:37 AM
    We're working on an historic structure in Philadelphia with a 900 sq. ft. footprint, were the City has grown up around it. Your issues are fairly common with historic structures and all the comments are very helpful. Contacting your local Historic Preservation Officers is crucial since I'm sure this not the only building in the area that had those conditions. Adaptive reuse of these old buildings realy add to the richness and character of our new Urbanism.

    Stanford R. Britt, FAIA, NOMAC
    President & Treasurer
    Architecture / Historic Preservation / Urban Design / LEED™

  • 4.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 02-27-2021 07:58 AM
    It is in a historic district and if is a structure with, I am assuming, much historic fabric.

    Even though the building doesn't meet present day code, you have 2 things going for you.  
    1 - It is a historic building (if not it should be designated as one, get the paperwork completed) and there is a lot of leeway for a historic building.
    2- In the Existing Building chapter of the building code, the building can remain, as is, and continue the be rented, and even upgraded, without a lot of problems.

    As far as the property lines, the new buildings will have the issues. There will be zoning as well as fire walls that they will have to meet and your client should be vocal to the elected officials about the impact of the neighbors on their building.

    224 East Water Street 
    Sandusky, Ohio 44870 
    419-625-2554 (w) 
    419-656-3017 (c)

  • 5.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 02-27-2021 01:11 PM
    First, go to your Historic District Coordinator in the City. The Hist District has all the first power. They can stop the building being covered up. They may get you an easement for the windows, etc on each side.

  • 6.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 03-01-2021 02:59 PM


    Thought-provoking question.


    Do we eliminate old buildings because they can't meet current codes (and are no longer "safe" by today's standards) OR do we save them as part of the historical fabric and in response to the needs of the Owner?


    With regards the responsibility of you and public officials – if the building can be maintained at current status if no change occurs that triggers use of newer code, then the building can remain as is. Or if  International Existing Building Code is enacted in your city – then maybe somethings need to be made as "good as possible" with the recognition that 100-year old buildings do not have all of the safety features we're required to provide today. Again, this is only if compliance with the building code is triggered.


    The ability to work around current standards doesn't eliminate our responsibility, as architects, for public safety.  The IEBC is legal "safe harbor" but would not eliminate the feeling that I'm responsible if people were injured or killed in the building due to old standards. For me, the same sense of responsibility applies to new buildings, even when they are code compliant. I hope that no person is injured or killed in one of my buildings due to the design of the building. In that vein, I would want the Owner to do as much work as possible to make the building as safe as it can be. Some of the buildings in my town have exterior fire escapes that would do in a pinch but are not something I would comfortable use if my life were not in danger.


    But that's not the real issue for me (and maybe not for you). Historic buildings are valuable resources for their contribution to the fabric of the city and as a demonstration of the passage of time.  (Full disclosure: I live in a small community that is very proud of their historic buildings and Owners/Architects go to great lengths to preserve, restore and reuse them.) If the building is structural sound this also helps to support the idea of not demolishing the building.


    A third option is to choose not to be involved in the project if neither of the above options is acceptable to you.


    Which leaves us in the middle with no good answer – just imperfect choices.


    Best wishes for a sane resolution to your dilemma.


    Margaret Godolphin, AIA


    Bjerke Architects PLLC

    2905 N. Montana Avenue ~ Helena, MT 59601



  • 7.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 03-02-2021 06:16 PM
    Thanks Peter for this question, what a great discussion.

    As Architects, I believe we share a responsibility to those buildings that came before us as well as the ones we leave behind.  It's often seemingly easier to raze the site and start fresh.  But the real challenge and potential reward for the community is preserving a piece of the past.  I live in a City whose commitment to its built history is tenuous.  I've seen plenty of adequate structures that may be in need of upgrades, demolished.  I believe some of the most interesting buildings I've visited and remember are the old quirky ones.

    You have received a lot of great advice.  I'd urge you to take all the comments into consideration and see if you can keep the building around for another 100 years or so.  I wish you success.

    Gregory Holah, NCARB
    HOLAH Design + Architecture
    Portland, Oregon 97232

  • 8.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 03-03-2021 07:29 PM
    Thank all of you that have responded.

    It may be a problem that borders on ethics and issues beyond simply the ability to fix things architecturally, I started with a question of how out of compliance with codes does a building have to get before it is not habitable. Then what?

    I wonder how was it allowed to get this way. What failed in the real estate business that allowed the sale of a building and its surrounding lots. Who would or should notice?

    How has it been allowed to be occupied? The Fire Marshal makes inspections, but it exists and they assume it is compliant. And parts are.

    If you go to building official and he rules it has to be fixed or abandoned you have potentially caused a financial loss to your client. Do Architects have any obligation to notify officials of what they find?

    The building I’m working with has a 2700 s.f. floor plate, not big. A new 5 story apartment building is about to be built around it. But then what obligations do the architects of the new building have to protect the existing old historic structure by having greater setbacks or any set backs. Is this written into law?

    I don’t have answers.

  • 9.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 03-05-2021 10:26 AM
    A building does not have to be fixed unless it goes through a Change of Use.  The only other reason is if it is inspected by the Rental Housing Authority (Housing) or The Fire Marshall (Commercial).  If it has a fir it has to be fixed or torn down.  Just because it is old doesn't mean it is bad.
    Again, if it is Historic it is a special animal.  We as Architects follow the laws and codes.  We inform the clients of the situations with both.  If the Building Official says one thing and the Code says another you stand up for the owner and the code.  You fight for it.!

    Nelson B. Nave AIA
    Nelson Breech Nave, AIA Architect
    Kalamazoo MI

  • 10.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 03-05-2021 05:23 PM

    Thanks,   Here a building office won't be involved unless you filer for a permit.   There attitude is if we you don't touch it, we don't know about it and there is nothing to enforce.   Fire marshals to my understanding are looking at how a building is used, such as if a fire door is being blocked open, not that the door even if closed is not properly rated.  Old 8 inch wooden treads with 30" handrails do feel a trifle unsafe.  If you start to fix one things, it draws attention to  other defects.  That old part of the code, if it's defective you have the option of fixing it or removing it.   There is a lot of grey before you get there  

     I've thought it might make an interest panel discussion on who's looking out for a building's safety over time.         

  • 11.  RE: Can or should this building be saved

    Posted 03-04-2021 06:11 PM
    I agree with JOHN A. FEICK and want to add a comment(s).  It can be useful to contact the fire department (particularly if they are typically actively involved on new or renovated structures) in regard to the conditions along your lot lines.  This should also increase the attention paid to this by your new neighbor and better assure safety and compliance on their part.

    In regard to your building, client, and your responsibilities anyone who has practiced for some time has run into these sorts of "ethical" problems.  I am sure it is not lost on you that you are charged (and licensed by your state) with promoting life safety and code compliance etc.  When faced with problems like this we have done at least the following: as part of "improving" the property we improve life safety features as much as we can (and required to) and impress upon the client the value of those improvements, both for the value they add to their property and the reduced likelihood of some sort of disaster (and perhaps insurance rates).  At the same time we try to work productively with the  building department to upgrade the property to what they consider the (realistic) norm for your type of building stock.  And I also want to echo Stanford R. Britt's comment regarding recruiting local Historic Preservation folks to your cause.

    Stephen Wanta AIA
    wanta-architect PLLC
    New York NY