Getting an Edge in the New Marketplace: Post-pandemic building construction and occupancy challenges

By Wayne D. Moore | Aug 15, 2021




For those of us who were able to work from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we learned that remote work is a viable option for the future, and it is now an enterprise strategy being adopted by the business community.

What does that mean to the fire alarm system installation business? Many businesses have given up office space, and employees no longer need to live close to where they want to work. These two factors alone would seem to indicate that office building construction will be minimal for at least the next year. We may also experience a trend toward repurposing existing office buildings. I believe some of the repurposing may trend to some form of senior housing. The obvious reason for my guess is America’s aging population.

Given all the changes we might expect, you will need to re-evaluate how you approach your business. First, become closer to the owners of the existing building market. Attending their association meetings, such as the local Building Owners and Managers Association, will more than likely give you some insight to their plans and strategies to accommodate the changes brought about by the pandemic and work from home policies.

Robert Scoble, a noted blogger, technical evangelist and author, once wrote: “Change is inevitable, and the disruption it causes often brings both inconvenience and opportunity.”

The inconvenience is that you will probably need to redefine your markets, develop new plans to get work in those markets and settle on a new reality. By the same token, you have an opportunity to pursue these new markets with a fresh outlook that may just give you an edge in the new marketplace.

For an office building repurposed as senior housing, you will need to learn the codes for the new market.

For example, even though you work in a jurisdiction that has not adopted NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, you may need to follow its requirements since the housing must meet its requirements to ensure payments from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that administers Medicare. Additionally, if the owner chooses to repurpose the building to a different occupancy class, the fire alarm system must automatically be reviewed and upgraded to meet the current requirements for the new occupancy type.

As with any upgraded fire alarm system, the design must meet requirements for the new occupancy class as defined in the building code. Ensure that the owner knows a complete system redesign—or at a minimum a complete system audit—will be necessary to determine compliance with the current codes and standards. Remember that even if the building would normally be grandfathered in with regards to current code requirements, when occupancy class changes, the building is treated as a new structure and must meet the current code.

To use an extreme example, assume the building is a high rise that was constructed with an in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications system (EVACS). You can bet the farm on the fact that the existing EVACS was not designed to meet the intelligibility and survivability requirements found in the current NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. It is your responsibility to ensure the owner understands that his fire alarm system “upgrade” will essentially be a completely new system with more loudspeakers installed to meet the intelligibility requirements and circuit integrity cable installation to meet the survivability requirements of the current code.

Another example of the changes we can expect recently happened in a city near me. A 47-room boutique hotel is being built by repurposing an existing historic building. The hotel is a complete renovation of a bank building constructed in 1887. In addition to the normal amenities expected in a hotel occupancy, this hotel will feature a restaurant, rooftop lounge and dining at a private, members-only club experience open to hotel guests. The fire alarm system design will need to accommodate a typical hotel occupancy and meet the additional demands of a historic building renovation as governed by NFPA 914, Code for the Protection of Historic Structures.

The new normal is going to continue with new challenges and opportunities. It is important for you to understand where your marketplace will be in the future and ensure you and your staff are prepared to take advantage of the new opportunities.

About The Author

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, was a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is president of the Fire Protection Alliance in Jamestown, R.I. Reach him at [email protected]

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