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Not all buildings are created equal
Steve Welborn
Steve Welborn is the director of the city of Hinesvilles Department of Inspections.

May is Building Safety Month. Although the Hinesville Department of Inspections focuses on building safety all year long, we want to take the time to highlight some building-safety concerns locally. If an individual, organization or a business is trying to find a location within the Hinesville city limits, there are a few things they should know before signing on the dotted line to buy or lease.

Every building at the time of its initial construction has three characteristics that mandate what function it can be used for — occupancy group, construction type and maximum occupancy load. In this column, I would like to focus on occupancy group and what needs to be considered before use. There is more involved than you might think.

Some examples of occupancy group are residential, assembly, mercantile and business. The occupancy group may change during the life span of a building. It cannot be predicted if the first occupancy use will be the last. What it was initially built for may later be converted into something else. For example, someone using a building initially built as a residence may later wish to convert it to an office or small church.

Also, the use or ownership of a building may change without a change in occupancy type. The implication here is that ownership or tenancy has no particular bearing on occupancy and the accompanying hazards. A building may house a restaurant or clothing store for years but have several owners or tenants. The hazards remain the same no matter who owns or occupies the building. Everyone must still comply with the occupancy codes for the building.

On the other hand, the occupancy type may change during the life span of a building, which could involve a modification in the potential hazard. In such an event, the building must be reclassified accordingly and comply in all respects with the new classification. That means that if the occupancy type is reclassified while the building is being occupied, the new tenants will have to respect the new classification and make sure the building is in compliance with the new codes. When this occurs, many factors may come together, such as the possible need for additional exits, additional fire protection or sanitary facilities that must be added or augmented, as well as Americans with Disabilities Act compliance requirements. The maximum-occupancy-load requirements may change as well.

This is especially true for assembly-type groups such as churches. For example, a person may look at a building initially used as a store or an office with an occupancy load of 10 persons but want to use or convert it to an assembly with double the number of occupants. The potential hazard would change with possible “life safety” issues. The individual would be required to make the necessary changes to convert or reclassify the building.

For those who are looking for a location, the city of Hinesville has implemented the Business Assistance Team. The team is composed of representatives from the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission’s Zoning Office, Hinesville Downtown Development Authority, Department of Inspections, Business License Office and the Fire Marshal’s Office.  

Appointments to meet with the Business Assistance Team may be scheduled upon request. They can review and analyze potential locations and inform individuals of what modifications may or will be required based on the potential use — all of which could significantly impact the building’s budget. Then they will know what needs to be done before they sign a contract or agreement.

We are being proactive. We don’t want people not fully informed when they sign to buy or lease and find that the building is not suitable for the intended purpose without major modifications and expenses. Please help us spread the word about the importance of building safety and help educate individuals on how to protect themselves from occupying a building not designed for their intended use.

Thank you.

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