Supplement: Codes for Retrofitting

April 1, 2018
Jeff Hugo covers the requirements and benefits of retrofitting sprinkler systems using current codes.

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Retrofitting a new automatic sprinkler system into an existing building increases the fire protection and life safety of that building for the occupants and businesses. Many new buildings today—residential, institutional and high-hazard occupancies—are mandated to have fire sprinkler systems or have occupant load (assembly) or fire area threshold (assembly, educational, factory, mercantile, storage) triggers to install fire sprinkler systems. Today’s building codes allow more than 125 height, area and material tradeoffs when sprinklers are installed, encouraging safer buildings while cutting installation and material costs. All of these fire sprinkler tradeoffs for new buildings have evolved and grown over the past 40 years.

Know the codes

The benefits of automatic sprinkler systems are found throughout the fire codes, such as the International Fire Code (IFC). Where sprinkler systems are retrofitted to comply with the IFC, Chapter 11 provides the requirements to bring existing nonconforming buildings up to a minimum standard. Unlike the International Existing Building Code (IEBC) or the International Building Code (IBC) where an activity such as new work is being done, the IFC, NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 requirements are triggered for all buildings when adopted or updated. 

One of the latest changes to increase protection in a high-risk occupancy occurs in the 2018 IFC for A-2 occupancies. Nightclubs, bars, restaurants, etc., where alcohol is consumed and that include fire areas allowing more than 300 occupants are required to be retrofitted with sprinklers. This requirement, in part, comes from Recommendation #1 of the NIST Report of the Technical Investigation of The Station Nightclub Fire, and follows the 2003 NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 mandates for retrofit of sprinkler systems when the occupant load exceeds 100. This new requirement in the 2018 IFC is not a blanket sprinkler system retrofit, but only those A-2 fire areas where alcohol is consumed and that allow more than 300 occupants will require fire sprinkler systems.

Other retrofit opportunities in the IFC include retrofitting existing I-2 (hospitals, nursing homes, etc.), I-2 Condition 2 (providing surgery, emergency services, etc.) with sprinkler systems and installing standpipes in existing buildings over 50 feet from fire department access.

Another code used extensively for existing buildings is the IEBC. Typically, an existing building remains “as is” unless the fire code, such as IFC Chapter 11, is adopted, or until work is done. The IEBC requirements are triggered when work occurs, such as repairs, alterations, additions, or changes in occupancy in existing buildings or where buildings are relocated. Fire sprinkler systems provide the largest benefit in the IEBC to increase safety and to keep existing building stock from being obsolete in the community. 

The IEBC is unique because it is a code book of three main and separate paths that provides options for the user in dealing with the rehabilitation of existing buildings. It is important to note that the design professional chooses one of these methods below and follows the IEBC for the compliance path within that method. The three paths for work in an existing building are as follows:

  1. Prescriptive Compliance Method: Work for alteration, repair, change of occupancy, or addition of all existing buildings is done with the prescriptive compliance method. This method can be best described as “follow the IBC,” meaning, if the existing building is treated as a new building, then many sprinkler benefits follow. There are several specific sprinkler benefits in this method, such as where sprinklers are installed throughout, they can replace or reduce existing fire-rated materials in existing buildings as if built new. This eliminates the maintenance of existing passive systems, such as door closers, door and frame ratings, undercuts, corridor ratings, shaft ratings, increases in height and area, etc.
  2. Work Area Compliance Method: This is another option for alterations, repairs, changes of occupancy, additions or relocation of all existing buildings. This method is usually the most popular among design professionals. It provides three further options depending on the extent of work or alterations to an existing building and the fire sprinkler requirements are based on these three work area methods. There are numerous benefits using the work area method, especially when work is extensive throughout a floor or story. One example: Where sprinklers are installed throughout, they can replace or reduce existing fire-rated materials, vertical openings are allowed to remain unprotected, corridor ratings can be reduced, fire-rated doors eliminated, and dead-end corridors can be lengthened, to name a few.
  3. Performance Compliance Method: Work for alteration, repair, change of occupancy, or addition of all existing buildings using the performance method is based on a system of values. This method comes from the old IBC Chapter 34 (2012 and earlier editions) and is similar to the methods in NFPA 101A. An existing building is scored based on numerous items, such as exiting, compartmentation and fire protection. Sprinkler and standpipe systems add numerical benefit to boost existing buildings into compliance. The final score of values is compared to a minimum score. 

Ensure the best protection

Each building in your community is unique. When it was built, to what edition of the codes and what has been enforced are just a few of the factors that apply to existing buildings. Using current editions of codes from ICC and NFPA ensures the best fire protection for these buildings and the occupants that live, eat, recreate and sleep in them. 

We know today that thousands of lives (or more) of the public and firefighters have been saved, as well as the prevention of countless injuries, thanks to fire sprinkler systems. These sprinkler saves, as found on, can benefit existing buildings as well, and retrofitting sprinklers into existing buildings has been a positive way to protect an existing building. 

For a more in-depth description of specific codes and where they apply to an existing building, consult NFSA’s Retrofit Guide. 

Code Snapshot

Retrofitting automatic sprinkler systems for existing buildings are addressed in the latest model codes from the ICC and NFPA. Adopt the latest codes to provide your community with the latest protection against fires in buildings.


  • NFPA Standard 1: Fire Code – 2018 and earlier editions
  • NFPA Standard 101: Life Safety Code - 2018 and earlier editions


  • IFC – 2018 and earlier editions
  • IEBC – 2018 and earlier editions

Take Action

City Administrators: Step-by-Step for Retrofit

1.     Engage the fire chief for assessment of retrofitting sprinklers into existing community building stock, such as high rises, bars, nightclubs and other properties.

2.     Involve engineering, codes, streets, zoning, economic development, water and other departments for feedback on feasibility and local incentives.

3.     Recognize citizen, advocates and adversaries and prepare for changes.

4.     Pursue local ordinance or adopt latest model codes to retrofit sprinklers into your community.

5.     Provide staffing to cover additional retrofit oversight, documentation and enforcement.

Property Owners: Step-by-Step for Retrofit

1.     Survey property with an experienced fire protection contractor. Include the local fire and building departments.

2.     Prepare and submit construction documents and construction fire safety plans for permits.

3.     Provide clear access to site and building during construction.

4.     Retrofit building in stages allowing for least impact to residents, occupants and operating hours.

5.     Commission all life safety and fire protection systems for the building to initiate a new level of protection for occupants, visitors and residents.

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