Complexities of building codes inform College’s construction plans

The new Stetson-Sawyer library, under construction since spring 2011, is one of the largest projects the College has undertaken in recent history. As per state law, the new library will not be fit for occupancy until it fulfills regulatory building codes, which detail safety standards related to fire prevention, occupancy and utility installation, among other things.

Massachusetts building code

While many Massachusetts building codes do deal with important safety concerns, a building being labeled as “not up to code” does not mean it isn’t safe to use, according to Steve Klass, vice president for Campus Life. Building codes are updated annually, and most changes are not so pressing as to require buildings to be updated with each and every revision. When a building is being renovated or worked on and the cost or value of that work is estimated to be over a specific percentage level of the building’s net worth, the builders must conduct what is called a Chapter 34 on the building, Klass explained.

In a Chapter 34, “You go in, you do the formal analysis, you find out what the gaps are, and you fill the gaps,” he said.

In the rare instance when the College does fall short of building codes, it is usually unrelated to safety itself. Safety is only one aspect of regulatory building codes: When the College transitions a building’s intended use or performs significant maintenance, mandatory upgrades to the most recent version of the building code are triggered. In addition, building codes change over time, primarily to reflect new emphases on safety and accessibility. The myriad laws and procedures that result are “mind-numbing” even to staff who work constantly on such projects, Klass said.

For some buildings, such as Weston Hall, which has gone mostly unused since the Career Center moved from there to Mears House in January, Klass said that renovations to bring the building up to code for the types of usage the College is envisioning for the space are usually far more complex than basic renovation projects; instead, when it is determined exactly what the building should be used for, and when capital is budgeted across all the building projects that are lined up for a given year, “Weston will likely be gut renovated for whatever its next use becomes,” he said. “So then you’re just starting from scratch … So you don’t even think about filling the gap as a code variance, you just design the project from scratch [to fit the new code].” Depending on the building, such renovations can be exceptionally difficult and time-consuming due to the desire to maintain the historical integrity of the building in question while also making it fully functional and up to modern-day code, Klass noted.

While many code updates are unrelated to safety, Klass emphasized that the College does ensure that its buildings are safe through work with the building inspector each year. “What we do is every year we get together with the building inspector and [Manager of Safety and Environmental Compliance] Joe Moran and our project people, and they walk around campus and they go from building to building, and they say, ‘What’s up there?’ And … if they see something there, then we address it by planning individual projects, and we prioritize it based on what the issues are, with health and safety issues always at the top of the list,” Klass said.

Currently, there are no College buildings in need of renovations to meet code, according to Moran. However, for the past five years the College has been adding exterior emergency lights to dormitories. Most recently, lights were added to Spencer and Brooks. After Currier Hall, Sage Hall and Williams Hall receive the emergency lights later this year, this project will be complete. These building additions were not a directive but the result of an agreement with the town, Moran explained.

Garfield House

As all attention turns to the Stetson-Sawyer project in anticipation of its fall 2014 opening, a number of other, smaller maintenance projects have left some students wondering whether their residence halls and athletic facilities are up to code. In late August, a number of Garfield residents moved into the former fraternity house just as renovations were being completed. These projects spurred rumors that the building was not or recently had not been up to construction code.

However, according to Klass, any and all work done by Facilities on residence halls and other College properties is simply part of the College’s initiative of routine and preventative maintenance. “As far as safety goes, Williams [officers] and the town [officers] walk through [campus buildings] regularly to check,” Klass said. “No buildings are unsafe. No facilities are unsafe.”

Garfield specifically is now up to all necessary building code. The construction project completed last summer was designed to enhance safety in the building by installing heating mats on the rooftop grate and additional fire alarm annunciators in student rooms, according to Klass.

The Log

The Log on Spring Street has also been rumored to be in violation of building codes. As part of recent efforts to increase student use of the Log, more than 250 students signed a resolution passed by College Council in January of 2010 supporting the reopening of the Log as a pub, but building code has stymied student efforts to revive the space. Reopening the Log would require significant additional construction to address fundamental structural and equipment issues.

“Any improvements that are driven by a substantial change in the manner and frequency with which we use the Log would essentially have to start from scratch,” Klass said, adding that there is a long list of regular, preventative and renewal maintenance projects that the College is prioritizing over renovation of the Log. This list mainly consists of upgrades to the College’s smaller, older dormitories. However, according to Klass, Facilities’ budget is almost back at a pre-recession level of $10 to 15 million per year, which might permit a redress of the Log in the future.

Weston Field

Weston Field, which hosts football and track and field at the College, has also come under scrutiny by athletes and spectators alike for supposedly being inconsistent with code. Klass says that he has no reason to believe that the seating surrounding Weston Field is in violation of any codes, as they are inspected by both the school and town every year and are “fine.” As for the track and field area, the misconception that it is not “up to code” likely arises from the fact that, until a recent re-grading project, the throwing area did not fulfill NCAA regulations, according to Athletic Director Lisa Melendy.

The track, on the other hand, has not been resurfaced since 2006. “At this point we do not feel comfortable holding big meets given [its] present condition,” Melendy said. According to Melendy, a plan to completely renovate Weston Field was weeks from being implemented in Nov. 2008, but the subsequent financial instability delayed the project indefinitely. The College is currently working on raising funds and developing a new construction plan for the Weston Field complex.

Long-term project planning

Not only were large projects like Weston Field and the Stetson-Sawyer Library delayed when the financial crisis tightened the College’s budget in 2008, but much smaller maintenance work had to be curtailed as well. But even when the College reduced its capital budgets during the recession, not a single building on campus was in jeopardy of violating code because of annual inspections and a strong history of maintenance and capital investment based on the hard work of the “150 dedicated [members of Facilities], some of whom who have been at this school the longest out of all of our employees,” according to Klass.

By utilizing an integrated Facilities plan to focus their efforts on preventative rather than emergency maintenance, Facilities has been able to extend the life of many building systems by years beyond expectations. This foresight helped avert potential disasters during when their budget was diminished, and Campus Life’s efforts are now once again turning to new projects.

The College is currently developing a long-term Facilities improvement plan that will focus on upperclassmen housing, minor maintenance jobs and large-scale renovations. Campus Life is dedicated to ensuring that any and all future renovations or construction on campus will be in accordance with the College’s goal of increasing overall square footage while reducing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions at the College are currently trending down at a rate that is projected to be 10 percent below 1990 levels by or before the Climate Action Committee’s goal year of 2020.