Maintaining updated safety codes difficult for U buildings

by Sam Kean

With building codes and safety regulations constantly shifting, it’s impossible for University buildings to remain strictly up to code.

But while most campus structures would be illegal if constructed today, the state has little legal right to force the University to update them.

With the expected adoption of new national codes next summer, many University buildings will fall into “legal non-conforming” status – a condition of semi-compliance where buildings can exist virtually indefinitely.

The old age of many University buildings is primarily responsible for any fire safety, air quality and accessibility problems – with fire-safety issues most prevalent.

However, because codes change only incrementally every three years, dire safety violations are rare. Because of the work involved in adopting national as opposed to regional codes, the University obeys the 1997 code and expects to adopt the 2000 code next summer.

Code changes usually reflect small improvements in building materials or technology. The Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 was the last statute to require major changes, said Minneapolis planning reviewers.

The University building code division prioritizes code-compliant conditions on a zero-to-four scale, zero being the most dire.

For 2000-02, the University will spend more than $3 million on code upgrades. The Legislature directly allocates these funds.

University building official Ron Holden said bringing a “zero” to a “one” takes priority over updating highly compliant buildings to ensure high ratings.

But these standards do not strictly determine where to spend money.

“There’s a lot of judgment calls,” Holden said about how to determine relative safety risks.

For example, some University buildings do not have fire alarms. Holden explained that small buildings with no alarms but clear exits might receive lower priority than large, twisting buildings with older safety equipment. Buildings slated for demolition might receive only marginal improvements to get through a few more years.

Generally, the University does not notify building occupants of rating changes because this information could cause confusion and misunderstanding, said Holden, whose department rates buildings only for planning and prioritization. But the department will discuss code compliance with building residents, he added.

Of the four University buildings shut down for safety issues, Holden said he knows of plans to renovate only the Mineral Resources Research Center on East River Road. Other buildings, such as Nicholson Hall, have floors blocked off, and others have only limited occupation.


Sam Kean encourages comments at [email protected]