What happens to an old building that doesn’t meet current fire codes?

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On January 28, NHK published a piece on old ‘non-compliant’ buildings that don’t meet current fire codes. A ‘kison-futeki-kaku’ (既存不適格) or non-compliant building is one that was built to the correct codes at the time of construction, but as codes were updated over the years, would not meet current standards and could not be re-built to the exact same specifications today.

These buildings are not illegal, and the building owners are usually not required to update them either unless they are adding extensions or rebuilding (although there are some pushes for some buildings to be retrofitted where possible). There are more than a few of these buildings out there. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) could not put a number on the total. Some may be non-compliant because building height limits were later lowered. Others may exceed current floor-area ratios for the lot. Some are quite harmless, but others can be potentially dangerous.

The devastating arson attack on a clinic in Osaka that killed 26 people last December highlighted the fire risks with older commercial buildings. The building at the center of the disaster was an 8-story multi-tenant office building built in 1970. It had one set of fire stairs by the main entrance. The building was built to the correct fire and safety codes at the time. It even passed a fire inspection in 2019 because it had fire alarms, extinguishers, and emergency exit lighting.

It was, however, a non-compliant building because a 1974 revision to the Building Standards Act required any buildings over 6-stories built from 1974 onwards to have at least two fire stairs, provide two emergency evacuation routes, and have smoke ventilation systems.

In the weeks following the disaster, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency ordered inspections on over 30,000 multi-tenant buildings nationwide to gain a grasp of the condition of these older buildings. 

Often buildings will be built to take up the maximum amount of space within a lot. Trying to make an older building meet the latest fire codes by adding an extra set of stairs is often not possible given the constraints of the structure and lot size. The cost is another prohibiting factor for some property owners. There are alternative solutions, such as ladders and slings that can be installed on each floor, although they may be less effective.

Sources:
The Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2021.
The Mainichi Shimbun, January 17, 2022.
NHK, January 28, 2022.

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