School Building Codes: A Basic Guide for Facility Managers

“When it comes to building codes, there are a lot of rules and guidelines that have to be addressed based on the very specific design of the building,” says Joel K. Sims, AIA, registered architect and founder/president of, an organization dedicated to bringing out the best in K-12 school design.

For example, an older building is subject to less stringent codes than new buildings. A building from the early 1900s may not use any products related to fire safety, but a newer building will likely have fire-rated walls, which involves meeting fire codes. Similarly, buildings from the early 1900s typically do not have asbestos in them, so asbestos codes wouldn’t apply when maintaining such a facility.

“This makes it difficult to discuss code in general terms,” says Frank Beans, AIA, a partner with Toledo-based The Collaborative. “Once you start speaking generally, it affects the project’s outcome and creates a liability issue for the architect who worked on it.”

And yet, says Sims, speaking in generalities is where to begin, while remembering that, like the English language, there are exceptions to every rule. “We have to speak in general codes or otherwise we’d have to hit all the exceptions,” he points out. “Generally speaking, when updating, you have to come up to code, but there are always exceptions.”

The best rule of thumb, then, is to check with a local authority when doing any repairs or maintenance to ensure that code is met, or to learn if it even needs to be met. In addition, here are some general issues that facility managers can and should be aware of.

Handicapped Accessibility
Accessibility means that somebody who is handicapped has access to programs within a school. “This is the one area where I see the most difficulty and violations as I tour schools,” says Ed Soots, AIA, LEED AP, project manager with Dayton (OH)-based Lorenz Williams, Inc. Facility managers must be aware that, as they make modifications to a classroom, suite, or other interior that’s being made handicapped accessible, an accessible route to that area must be available. And that route must be labeled.

Also, there are requirements for door widths; door clearances; and restroom configurations, sizes, and clearances. Even things as simple as towel dispensers and soap dispensers have height requirements.

Similarly, as door hardware is replaced, it must meet ADA guidelines. For example, hardware that requires tight grasping is out; hardware with levers is in. The same is true for replacing sinks and faucets: one must be accessible, there must be clearances under the sink, and the faucet hardware must not require tight grasping or twisting.

All these guidelines can be found online in the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) at

Another point to be made in this category is that, a lot of times, school districts will say, “We don’t have anyone who’s handicapped.” Yet, what if the gym teacher breaks a leg or someone else is temporarily disabled? Will these people have access? “More, we have a tendency to do the bare minimum in this area — what’s required by code — when we should try to do what’s helpful to people,” says Sims.

Maintaining Safe Exiting
Soots notes that, while codes apply to maintaining safe exiting, so does common sense. For example, a clear pathway must be maintained at all times to all exits. “Also, any exit door needs to be free at all times from the side that’s exited,” he says. “Doors must be maintained in good order so that exit isn’t restricted. There must be functioning exit signs throughout a building. And this is not widely known, but all exit signs must be the same color throughout the building.”

It’s best to assume there may always be somebody in the building, even at night, so chains are not a viable solution to closing or locking damaged doors. “You just have to spend the money to fix the door so it does close or lock,” Sims points out.

A problem Soots finds in older schools is scissor-type, cross-corridor gates that block off a hallway. “They’re not good for exiting,” he points out. “If you have a fire, you can’t get past them.” Also, he notes that a general rule of thumb is for dead-end corridors to not be more than 20 ft. deep. The explanation is that, in a fire, if a person travels 20 ft. down a corridor to exit and discovers there is no exit, he has to turn around and retrace those 20 steps, wasting precious time.

School facilities also have to have a functioning and well-maintained fire alarm system. “As facilities are updated, the fire alarm system must meet ADAAG requirements, which include strobe lights for a visual signal and sound for an audible signal for the hearing and visually impaired,” says Soots.

Both Soots and Beans suggest checking current facilities for fire ratings. Any time work is done to a corridor, a sure sign it’s fire rated is if the doors have closers and fire-resistance labels. Maintenance and replacement must continue to meet fire code. This includes using fire-rated glass and latching hardware.

Energy Efficiency
Sims notes that there are now quite a few code issues related to energy efficiency. Generally speaking, classrooms need occupancy sensors. There is an exception where another, approved lighting control system is used. Similarly, dual switching is required to switch off half the lights to conserve energy.

Current code on fresh air to classrooms is a generous 20 CFM per student, says Soots. This is for the health of students and teachers. Therefore, he recommends against closing fresh air intake units to save energy.

“Facilities managers must be aware that a number of energy efficiency codes have an impact on the overall cost of construction,” Sims points out. “The cost is going to increase, yet the building will be safer.”

Fire Department Access
“This is a no-brainer,” Soots says. Follow code at all times. In addition, he recommends befriending the local fire inspector: “He can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It’s wise to build an alliance with him.”

Fire Safety
The latest code on fire-rated glass in educational facilities is for it to be laminated wired glass. “Building managers still haven’t caught onto this,” warns Sims.

Also, many schools were designed with hallways or corridors to be fire rated to provide a safe exit passage. “When sprinklers are added, the scenario changes,” says Sims, “but, when dealing with existing buildings, you can assume the hallway is fire-rated.”

This means that hallway doors are rated and labeled so that, when replacing a door, a quick look at the label makes it simple to replace it. Similarly, walls must go all the way to the deck. Holes in the ceiling must be patched to maintain its fire rating. Also, if a pipe is put through a fire-rated wall, the hole can be sealed with fire-rated caulk.

Code aside, Soots recommends against hanging an excessive amount of artwork and posters from walls and ceilings because of its combustibility. “It makes fire inspectors nervous,” he says.

When it comes to framing, facility managers’ material decisions have a direct code impact. For example, if putting up a new wall to break a large room into two smaller rooms, using metal studs – a noncombustible product – works either a new (noncombustible) or old (combustible) school. “Many facility managers find it easier to go to the hardware store, buy wood 2x4s, and install them,” says Sims. “That compromises the wall’s fire rating.”

Going Above and Beyond
Both Soots and Sims mention the need for architects and facility managers to go above and beyond when it comes to meeting code. “Sometimes, there are areas in which it makes sense to go above and beyond,” says Sims.

Using an intruder lockset is one example. It used to be that classrooms were only locked from the outside to prevent someone from entering at the end of the day and taking something. An intruder lockset allows a classroom to be locked from the inside as well as the outside, to prevent an intruder from entering the classroom when it’s full of children.

It is a popular and practical product. “We’re using it on a lot of schools now,” says Sims. “It’s not a code issue, but it makes sense.”

Similarly, putting doors between classrooms is thought of for team teaching, but it also serves a safety need. If a classroom of students can’t exit into a hallway, they can move into the neighboring classroom. “It provides a secondary way of escaping a room,” says Sims. “Like the intruder locksets, it is not a code issue, but it is a practical idea.”

It is a real challenge to meet code because it’s so specific, so many factors come into play and there are always exceptions to the rules. If we’re really honest, we’ll admit that it’s frustrating to think about all that has to be done in schools to meet code, says Sims. On the other hand, when codes are followed, schools are safe, durable, and energy efficient. By knowing a little about code, facility managers can help keep them that way.