Life Safety & Accessibility

New York State Building Code

The New York State Building Code-the Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code-provides basic regulations for new construction and existing buildings as well as safeguards for the safety and health of occupants and users of New York's buildings. Most historic preservation projects trigger the code, especially in the areas of access, fire safety, use and construction requirements. Historic buildings were built before the advent of a uniform building code. Therefore, while they may be extremely well-built and sound, they might have materials, plans, or other things that do not meet modern codes.

Conflict arises when a code triggering situation occurs, and the required work means alteration or removal of significant historic plan, material or other character defining features. In New York State, application of the code is triggered in 3 basic ways: change in a building's use; work having a value greater than 50% of the building's replacement value; or limited change to a specific section or part of a building (usually not including in-kind repair or maintenance). The New York State code allows a building owner to apply for a code variance when the code cannot be met. Variance requests are reviewed by regional Variance Boards, but the overall process is coordinated by the Department of State Codes Division in Albany.

A variance is not a waiver or exemption from a code requirement. Rather, it presents an alternative or equivalent method (or methods) to achieve the same end result. This consideration of alternatives can be very successful in allowing historic material, plan or other aspects of a building's historic character to remain. The ultimate goal it to be creative in providing safety and retaining historic character. The New York State Code also includes requirements for providing access for disabled persons. Similar to life safety, the code does provide for a variance process whenever conflicts arise between accessibility and historic preservation. This process is handled by the same local boards of review, and coordinated by the Albany office of the Department of State Codes Division.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, basic levels of accessibility became an affirmative responsibility for almost all properties open to and used by the public. The ADA is comprehensive civil rights legislation. It prohibits discrimination in the following areas:
  • Mentally
  • Physically
  • Public accommodations
  • Public transportation
  • State and local government programs and services
  • Telecommunications
  • Visually and hearing impaired individuals in employment
While the New York State Code has been amended to include many of ADA's provisions, property owners still must consider both regulations. For example, the New York State Code addresses ADA's provisions for new construction and alterations, but consultation with the SHPO in alteration projects, barrier removal and other anti-discrimination provisions are not required under the New York State Code. For the historic building owner, the ADA can present a considerable challenge: ADA does not exempt historic properties from compliance.

Within the law are sections, or Titles that outline the law. Within two of those, Title 2 and Title 3, ADA requirements apply to 3 basic categories of property types: public accommodations, commercial facilities and local and state governmental entities. For more information, please contact our office and request the brochure "The ADA and Historic Preservation."