This section of the site is a collection of practical advice for bringing lofts up to code and dealing with inspectors, landlords, and the city. Included for your convenience is a list of lawyers with experience with Tenant/Landlord disputes. While this list does not represent an endorsement, we can say that all of these lawyers have dealt with loft tenants and are acquainted with the associated legal issues.
Safety Code Information
This information was compiled by architects working with the Coalition's Code Compliance Committee and distributed at an early Coalition meeting.
Our aim is to provide plain language information on the most serious New York City fire codes and building codes effecting Brooklyn live-work lofts. While fire code violations form only a small part of the problems confronting Brooklyn lofts, these violations are, however, the only violations that may result in immediate vacate orders (arguable). The Department of Buildings concerns are occupancy, zoning (living in commercially zoned places), and change of use. Evictions on these grounds require longer processes, notifications, summons, hearings, etc. Of course, separating zoning and fire codes in this way paints an overly simplistic picture. In practice, zoning and fire code laws intersect with politics, money, special interests, and corruption. In short, the colliding of multiple interests make improbable a simple rendering of the issues the Brooklyn LiveWork Coalition must address. However, at their core fire codes are about protecting from danger and preserving life. The occupants and landlords of livework lofts must do everything they can to make their buildings safe for the people who occupy them, for their friends, for their neighborhoods, and for the fire fighters who risk their lives to save others.
The many nuances of the New York City Building Codes complicates any attempt to propose basic fire safety standards. Only an on site inspection of the building in question by an architect can yield fully satisfactory information of the issues at stake. There are a number of building classifications each of which has its own specific code requirements. Broadly these range from combustible to non-combustible type buildings. Within each of these categories are a number of subset classifications. Every one of these building types along with the building uses and zonings carry their own specific regulations. As can be expected, combustible-type buildings are most at risk for fire (and hence more at threat for eviction orders) and the tenants and landlords in these buildings need to be the most proactive in making their dwellings safe.
This said, we are confident in the broad standards and straightforward advice we offer below. We expect that the occupants of live/work lofts once made aware of some of the basic fire hazard issues confronting them will be able to set in motion the processes required to rectify these problems. Some of these can be done by loft occupants themselves while others require more of less landlord cooperation and participation. We encourage Brooklyn livework tenants to make themselves aware of the basic fire safety issues at stake in their lofts and buildings. This basic awareness is an essential first step in the longer process of stabilization and legitimization of Brooklyn livework lofts.
Means of egress: Hallways, doors, divisions between spaces, ceilings, roofs, floors, internal and external walls if constructed correctly retard the spread of fire. Hallways, doors, and fire escapes are both a means of escape for occupants and access for fire fighters who are battling the danger. These constructions must be able to withstand fire. There are a number of 'fire ratings' (one hour, two hour, three hour, four hour). The specific codes for fire ratings vary for building types and function in the building.
Construction: Walls should be made of fire rated sheet rock, built from metal studs, and go the whole way to the ceiling. One hour fire rating is 5/8th inch sheet rock on both sides of a wall (two pieces). If 1/2 inch sheetrock or if wood was used during construction then another layer of 5/8th inch sheetrock will need to be added to both sides. This is particularly important in common hallways and in fire escapes.
Doors: Doors on both the entrances to spaces and to escape routs i.e. stairs, must be fire rated metal doors with self closing mechanisms activated.
Corridor: There are various standards on the width of hallways. To be safe, adhere to the strictest guideline which is 48 inches wide with seven and a half feet of unobstructed overhead clearance. Hallways must be kept clear well lit at all times. Any objects in the hallway obstructing escape in the case of fire and blocking the path of fire-fighters constitute a serious offense.
The best hallways are the least complicated and should only end at escape routs. Dead ends, confusing branches, and meandering paths all constitute problems. Many times these can be fixed by adding another door. Also, we recommend that hallway plans with clearly marked exits be post in visible places in the hallways and in each unit. Also, keep in mind the codes require there be no dead end corridors exceeding 40' from any exit.
Exit Signs: Exit signs must be visible from any point in the hallway. Lit exit signs with emergency lights that are hardwired with battery backups are required. However, if you are in a pinch glowing sign is better than no sign.
Smoke detectors: Smoke detectors should be overhead and near sleeping areas with clear indicators that they are functional. The codes require smoke detectors to be hardwired. However, if none are in place then short-term battery operated ones should be installed immediately.
Fire Extinguishers: While we find that the codes are not exactly clear on the presence of fire extinguishers, our experiences with the fire department suggests they are very important. Make sure there are at least two in every hallway and one in every unit. These should be the large ones, have current tags, and be highly visible.
Fire Suppression: Sprinklers, standpipes, and the Siamese connections in front of the building are more the domain of the landlord. However, tenants need to do their part in not blocking sprinkler heads and leaving unobstructed access to standpipes in the building and to the Siamese connections in the front of buildings. All corridors should have working sprinklers. Many times loft occupants are not sure if sprinkler systems are in fact in operation. Ask your landlord, ask an architect, ask a plumber, and if you discover they are not operational then pressure your landlord to remedy the situation.
Longer Term Considerations
The process of bringing Brooklyn loft buildings fully up to code--of changing the zoning to formally allow multiple use live and work, of stabilizing the conditions of tenants and landlords, and of facilitating the legislation that will make all this possible--will take time and commitment. While Brooklyn LiveWork loft occupants address the immediate concerns of fire safety they must also begin to consider the longer term issues that will eventually make their way to the stage. Many of these have to do with the way individual lofts have been constructed--travel distances to escapes; construction materials; plumbing and electrical codes; natural light and natural and mechanical ventilation requirements; the number, placement, and ratios of windows; square footage of lofts; internal walls and placement of sleeping quarters, kitchens and bathrooms; and handicap access.
Addressing all of these concerns will take time, effort, money, and the cooperation of local officials, legislators, landlords, the media, special interest groups, and neighbors. This will not happen easily. The Brooklyn LiveWork Coalition is committed to protecting and preserving our ways of life and our means of existence. The spaces in which we live and work are the spaces in which our ambitions are reified. But the issues are larger than just our lofts. We know that we are an essential component of the Brooklyn renaissance and we are committed to furthering the remarkable cultural and economic recovery of our city.