In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet suggests that Romeo change his name so that he no longer belongs to the House of Montague—the sworn enemy of Juliet’s family, the House of Capulet. Juliet calls out:
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Shakespeare makes the point that a name does not matter, but what it is, does.
Thus, we add a little culture to building codes. So, how does a tragic play about two lovers apply to building codes?
Specific to that Juliet quote, some architects and owners try to circumvent code requirements by calling something other than what it really is.
For example, an owner insists that a 1-hour fire-resistant separation is not required between a second-floor habitable space and the garage below for a detached structure adjacent to the owner’s residence. His justification: the habitable space is an “entertainment area” for his pool. So, what does this “entertainment area” include? It has a kitchenette, a bathroom, a room with a closet, and a large living room-type space. Sounds like the characteristics of a dwelling unit.
The International Residential Code's definition of a dwelling unit is “A single unit providing complete independent living facilities for one or more persons, including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation.” If a certificate of occupancy were issued under the owner's premise of an "entertainment area," how long do you think it will take for the owner to install a bed in the room with a closet and lease the second floor “entertainment area” to some college student?
Another common example is a design professional assigning a space a name that implies a specific use different that the actual intended use. This is done in order to reduce the occupant load or to avoid some other requirements applicable to the actual use, whether initiated by the architect or directed by the owner, this is not ethical and could create problems for the design professional.
Some of these attempts are obvious and some are not. It is the ones that are not obvious that can create problems...especially if an event would occur that caused damage or personal injury or death and could have been avoided if properly designed for the actual use. However, it is a dilemma that building officials face: can they force an owner or design professional to apply a use or occupancy that differs from what is indicated on the construction documents? What if the building official's position was solely based on a “gut feeling” that the space will not be used as indicated or may be used for a different use or occupancy that could create a more hazardous condition? It is a fine line to walk, but most will likely take the conservative route.
Building officials, too, are known to apply requirements for uses when the space clearly does not need to. For example, a set of construction documents labels a two-story space in an office building as an “atrium.” The “atrium” does not comply with the requirements for atriums, but it does comply with the exception in the code section on shaft enclosures that permits a floor opening between two stories without conforming the the requirements for an atrium. Just because it is called an “atrium” on the drawings, does not make it one by the building code.
The bottom line: don’t play the name game. Apply the use or occupancy that is truly applicable—it is what it is. If a space is used for more than one use, it must comply with the requirements for all intended uses. Additionally, in order to avoid complications during plan review, design professionals should not label spaces that may infer requirements that are not applicable.