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A no-cost boost for cities and towns

The new statewide construction code makes it far easier to renovate existing buildings

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

By Thomas Hylton

Pennsylvania´s new budget is being touted as a big win for Pennsylvania´s cities and towns. The new slots legislation is supposed to generate $2 billion for economic development, including $404 million for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, adding to the $1.1 billion economic stimulus package the General Assembly passed last April.

But without any new spending at all, a little heralded section of the recently adopted statewide construction code can provide an enormous boost to our main streets and older neighborhoods.

Pennsylvania´s Uniform Construction Code now replaces a mishmash of codes formerly used by Pennsylvania municipalities. Part of the new code is specifically aimed at existing buildings, encouraging the rehabilitation of older structures instead of throwing up unnecessary barriers.

"It makes the re-use of existing buildings a lot more predictable and easy and affordable," said Maureen Guttman, a Mt. Lebanon architect who is president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "Ideally, code enforcement officials will be able to get on board with municipalities trying to redevelop their older buildings rather than using the code as a weapon to clonk developers over the head."

Well built older buildings can last for centuries with proper maintenance and periodic renovations. They do in Europe.   But American building codes have traditionally focused on new buildings, with stringent requirements for the width of doorways, hallways, and the size and placement of windows that older buildings can´t meet. Although code officials have always had discretion to approve variances that would fulfill the objectives of the code, it was much easier to go strictly by the book. Unless a developer was prepared to gut a building and start from scratch, he couldn´t feel confident about meeting the code. And in many cases, it isn´t financially feasible to gut a building to renovate it.

That´s a leading reason why the upper floors of hundreds of commercial buildings throughout southwestern Pennsylvania have remained vacant for decades - it hasn´t made economic sense to bring them up to code. Unfortunately, code enforcement standards have often defeated their own purpose by making it so difficult to fix up buildings that property owners allow structures to deteriorate and even walk away from them.

To help address that problem, Pittsburgh´s planning department hired a team of architects in 1998 to recommend ways to safely rehabilitate the Golden Triangle´s numerous "sliver" buildings - long narrow structures two to eight stories high that frequently have only one means of egress from the upper floors. But the study was limited to a few particular types of buildings.

The new statewide code, Guttman said, is reader friendly and makes it easier to determine what changes will be required to renovate any existing building. If work is being done on just a limited portion of a building, the code does not require the entire building to be brought up to the latest standards. The code also contains fire ratings for methods of construction that aren´t used any more, such as wood lath and plaster walls, so code officers can make informed judgments when applying the rules.

The inspiration for the new section, known as "The Existing Building Code," was a special building code New Jersey adopted in 1997 to encourage the renovation of older structures. The new code saved developers as much as 25 percent of their construction costs and helped create a renaissance of building restorations in the state´s largest cities.  

Maryland adopted a similar code the following year.

In Pennsylvania, the new building law gives municipalities more control over their destinies. Municipalities can decide to enforce the code themselves - and most cities and towns do - rather than have the Department of Labor and Industry review the plans and make the inspections. Labor and Industry isn´t particularly sensitive to the problems of older communities trying to revitalize their building stock. For example, the Department charges much higher permit fees for renovation projects than new construction. But if towns enforce the code themselves, they can set their own fee structures. Moreover, they can establish a streamlined review and inspection process in a business where time is money.

Towns now have the opportunity to make their code enforcement officers a partner, rather than an adversary, in the process of renovation and restoration. If towns want buildings to be safe and healthful, they must find ways to help property owners fix them up.   Realistic codes and timely inspections will help fulfill that mission.



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