April 30, 1991 - From the April, 1991 issue

High-Rise Retrofits: A Safe but Expensive Idea

Since the City of Los Angeles enacted its high-rise retrofit ordinance in 1988 after the First Interstate Tower fire, the implementation of this ordi­nance has raised numerous issues that were unanticipated by owners, architects, and the building commu­nity. As a result, retrofit projects are experiencing difficulties meeting schedules and budgets. Edward L. Fixen notes the details of the high-rise retrofit ordinance, its unanticipated issues and the future of a residential retrofit ordinance. Fixen is an Associate Consultant with Rolf Jensen and Associates. Inc., a consulting firm specializing in fire protection engineering and building code consulting. 

The Ordinance 

The current Los Angeles retrofit ordinance applies to all existing high­rise buildings except those that are considered a residential occupancy, such as apartments, condominiums, and hotels. High-rise buildings are defined as any building with occu­pied floors located more than 75 feet above the lowest floor-level having building access. The ordinance is affecting 359 buildings in the City of Los Angeles. 

The ordinance requires the in­stallation of an automatic sprinkler system, elevator vestibules, fire pump(s), an emergency generator, a water storage tank (in certain cases) and stair shaft ventilation. Similar non-residential retrofit ordinances exist in other Southern California cities, including San Diego, Pasa­dena, and Anaheim. 

After being cited with an order to comply with the ordinance, the owner of a building is granted a pe­riod of one year to submit plans and obtain the necessary permits for con­struction. Full compliance with the ordinance must be completed within three years. 

Unanticipated Issues 

The specific fire protection and life safety features required by the ordinance have triggered the en­forcement of unanticipated new con­struction requirements in existing high-rise buildings.

One such unanticipated issue is accessibility for the disabled. Be­cause California’s State Building Code requires compliance with ac­cessibility requirements when reno­vation work exceeds a preset value, the retrofit ordinance’s requirements for elevator lobbies mean that acces­sibility requirements also must be addressed.

The accessibility improvements required as a result are numerous. The main path of travel from the main entrance to the area being remodeled must be upgraded to meet current handicap access requirements. This includes upgrading elevator car con­trols and elevator lobby call buttons to meet handicap accessibility re­quirements. 

Also requiring upgrade are pub­lic facilities serving the remodeled area, such as bathrooms, public tele­phones, and water fountains, as well as the path of travel to the public facilities. Within the bathrooms, fau­cet fixtures and urinals may be re­quired to meet accessibility regula­tions. 

Current interpretations of acces­sibility requirements in the City of Los Angeles also require that all ex­terior entrances to the building be upgraded for disabled access. Ac­cessible parking spaces, if not cur­rently provided, could also be trig­gered by the ordinance. 

Compliance with accessibility requirements in an existing building can cause significant costs and prac­tical difficulties in renovating a building’s circulation areas and pub­lic facilities. These requirements were triggered even though the retrofit or­dinance did not intend to address ac­cessibility issues. Providing accessi­bility is in the best interest of the public. However, the intent of the ordinance is to provide fire safety to occupants of commercial high-rise buildings without placing unreason­able financial hardships on the own­ers implementing the ordinance. 

Fire Alarms 

The ordinance also requires fire alarm systems that can monitor the retrofitted automatic sprinkler system. These devices consist of water flow detection devices and tamper switches for the sprinkler control valves which are to be interconnected with the building’s fire alarm system. To ac­commodate these additional sprinkler system alarm devices, the existing fire alarm system must be expanded or completely replaced. 

In the past, the City (meaning the Building and Safety and Fire Depart­ments acting in tandem) has taken the position that if the existing fire alarm system cannot accommodate the additional devices,additional equipment must be specifically approved and listed for compatibility with the exist­ing system. Unfortunately, no such compatibility listing is available, and the City is reevaluating its original position. Costs for new fire alarm systems in high-rise buildings can exceed $150,000. 

Furthermore, if the existing fire alarm system needs to be replaced, the new system is required to comply with new construction requirements for high-rise buildings. Compliance with new high-rise fire alarm system requirements leads to additional requirements, such as new devices, voice-alarm systems, and controls, resulting in additional costs. 


To address some of these periph­eral issues created by the ordinance, the City has developed Memorandum for General Distribution (MGD) No. 88 which provides official guidelines and interpretations for implementing the ordinance. MGD No. 88 puts in writing some of the issues that have arisen in the first years of imple­menting the ordinance, giving all parties some notice on what to expect. 

While MGD No. 88 does not eliminate issues such as disabled ac­cessibility and new fire alarm systems, it does allow owners and architects the opportunity to plan and budget for requirements enforced by the City that are not identified in the body of the ordinance. 

The Time Problem 

Aside from these unanticipated issues, time has proven to be another obstacle to implementing the ordi­nance. The task of financing, plan­ning, designing, and implementing the improvements within three years has proven difficult — in some cases nearly impossible — to accomplish.

In response to efforts by the Building Owners and Managers As­sociation (BOMA) and in recognition of the difficulties and financial hard­ships placed on owners in complying with the time periods currently allot­ted, the City is currently giving con­sideration to amending the ordinance to allow significantly more time for compliance under certain conditions. The proposed amendments would permit a series of two-year exten­sions, up to a limit of four extensions (or a total extension of eight years, in addition to the three years already allowed). These extensions would be allowed for completion of elevator lobbies and for vacant buildings. Furthermore, buildings unoccupied above the first floor could be granted an extension of up to eight years for the unoccupied floors, provided the oc­cupied floors are provided with sprinklers and a two-hour fire-rated sepa­ration is provided between the occu­pied and unoccupied floors. 

These proposed amendments are presently the subject of meetings among Building and Safety, the Fire Department, the Central City Asso­ciation, and BOMA. The amendments will be the subject of a public hearing by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, chaired by Richard Alatorre, during April. 

Ahead: Residential Retrofit? 

Concurrent with these positive steps toward improving the commer­cial high-rise retrofit ordinance, the City is also developing a residential high-rise retrofit ordinance. A draft ordinance received a public hearing in the Public Safety Committee dur­ing February. 

The currently proposed language would require the following features in existing, residential high-rise buildings: 1) Common areas to be retrofitted with sprinklers within three years; 2) living areas of hotels to be retrofitted with sprinklers within six years; 3) living areas of apartments and condominiums to be retrofitted with sprinklers within seven years. 4) any change in tenancy of apart­ment buildings or ownership in con­dominiums will require earlier com­pliance; 5) a fire pump; 6) an emer­gency generator; 7) stair shaft venti­lation

At the public hearing, the ordi­nance encountered significant opposition, particularly from senior citi­zens concerned that the ordinance would cause rent increases. The or­dinance now appears stalled in the Public Safety Committee — it has been sent to the Housing Preservation and Production Department for fur­ther cost study and an EIR. Council­men Alatorre and Bernson have in­dicated their willingness to consider a compromise ordinance that would mandate retrofits of common areas only. 

Lessons Learned 

From a practical and financial standpoint, retroactive construction requirements can be very difficult to accomplish in existing buildings. However, the financial burden can be minimized by careful evaluation of all building elements affected by a retroactive ordinance. The City is at­tempting to do this through MGD No. 88. 

Fire safety improvements to ex­isting buildings should attempt to find a balance between a reasonable level of safety and an acceptable cost-benefit relationship. And with the pending ordinance amendments for time ex­tensions, the issuance of MGD No. 88, and the time tables for the proposed residential retrofit ordinance, it appears that the City of Los Angeles is beginning to strike that balance.


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