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Author(s): Ron Cote. Published on May 1, 2017.

NFPA 101 and change-of-occupancy issues


The “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire, which occurred in December in Oakland, California, and killed 36 occupants, was a tragic large-loss-of-life incident where a building was used as an occupancy different than what it was permitted for. Additionally, the authority having jurisdiction was not aware of that new, unpermitted use. Adoption and enforcement of fire and life safety codes, such as NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, can help to prevent similar tragedies.

NFPA 101 is an occupancy-based code, meaning that the features, systems, and other protective elements required by the code vary depending on occupant needs and capabilities that are characteristic of each occupancy type. For example, the health care occupancy provisions employ a protect-in-place strategy whereby the required features work together to keep the non-fire portions of a building tenable for use as areas of refuge while the fire is being controlled.


Contrast the required health care occupancy protection scheme with that applicable to an assembly occupancy, such as a restaurant with seating for more than 300. The restaurant occupants are expected to egress the building upon fire or similar emergency. The requirements that work together to provide sufficient egress time include a means for providing voice emergency messages via the building fire alarm system; automatic fire sprinklers to keep the fire from spreading to points outside the area of fire origin; and fire-resistive building construction to help ensure that the building does not collapse before all building occupants have escaped. Other required features work to complete the package providing the needed level of life safety. For example, the main entrance/exit of the restaurant is required to provide a minimum of one-half of the required egress capacity because occupants, under fire emergency conditions, will try to return to the entrance with which they are familiar, potentially overtaxing this egress route compared to other routes that may be underutilized.

NFPA 101 addresses change of occupancy in Chapter 43, Building Rehabilitation. Change of occupancy is one of the rehabilitation work categories for which specialized requirements apply. (The other rehabilitation work categories are repair, renovation, modification, reconstruction, change of use, and addition.) With change of occupancy, the code user notes the hazard category of the existing occupancy and the hazard category of the new occupancy, as defined and classified in the building rehabilitation chapter.

If the new occupancy is of a greater hazard category than the existing occupancy—for example, if a warehouse is changed to a nursing home—then the new occupancy must meet all of the applicable requirements, in this case for a new health care occupancy.

Different rules apply if the new occupancy is of the same or lesser hazard category than the existing occupancy. If a warehouse is changed to a nightclub with an occupant load of more than 300, for example, then the new nightclub must meet the criteria applicable to an existing assembly occupancy for everything but sprinklers, alarms, and the main entrance/exit, which must meet the requirements for a new assembly occupancy. Sprinklers must meet those more stringent requirements because the assembly occupancy is, specifically, a nightclub; an alarm system with voice communication is required because the occupant load exceeds 300; and the main entrance/exit must accommodate a minimum of two-thirds of the occupant load because the assembly occupancy is, specifically, a nightclub.

Given that the code requirements vary depending on the occupancy classification, it is important to utilize the permitting process any time the occupancy changes so that the resulting features, systems, and other protective elements provided are those necessary for life safety for the new occupants.

RON COTÉ, P.E. is NFPA technical services lead for life safety.