CALIFORNIA'S SHBC: Code Compliance and the SHBC

The State Historical Building Code (SHBC) is a mandate for reasonable alternatives to the requirements of "regular" codes and ordinances, applicable to all qualified historic resources. It is to be administered by the local building official, recognizing that advisory service, precedents and Board rulings are available from the State Historical Building Safety Board, which is the final administrative authority on the SHBC's application. And while "health and safety" are issues that may never be ignored, it is important to identify parameters to contain that otherwise-too-subjective term.

In the broadest sense, anything less than the "perfect" building may be perceived by some to pose a compromise with health and safety. Thus, even the rise and run of a stairway, if not in compliance with the most current issue of the triennial building code, could fall into this category. Yet we know that buildings legally remain open and in operation for generations, although clearly out of compliance with provisions of subsequent building codes. Thus it must be acknowledged that issues of non-compliance with the regular code, which routinely exist in ongoing occupancies, cannot logically be considered to constitute a hazard to life safety.

However, conditions do arise in structures which require immediate attention, and which cannot be permitted to continue, even in existing ongoing operations. These are the "health and safety" issues which the SHBC may not overlook, nor would it want to. The statutes which establish the Historical Building Code, Health and Safety Code Sections 18950 through 18961, guarantee, in Section 18957, that local building and fire officials shall not be prevented from addressing these issues. But to attempt to apply Section 18957 to the broader issues of routine non-compliance would place more restrictions and demands on historic resources than are made of a community's existing occupied building stock. This is the exact opposite of the legislative intent of the SHBC.

A very appropriate "rule of thumb" is that any condition or non-code-compliant situation which--in an existing--ongoing occupancy, would demand immediate correction, is a condition which clearly applies equally to qualified historic resources. Conversely, any condition or non-code compliant situations which are permitted to continue within existing occupancies, are also permissible in qualified historic buildings. This "rule of thumb" is entirely consistent with standard code enforcement operations throughout California, and it provides a reliable framework within which to make appropriate decisions relative to the need for alterations.

This "rule of thumb" has two common-sense-driven partial exceptions. If the rehabilitation project requires structural work, owners are encouraged to integrate into the work a reasonable improvement to the ability of the structure to resist seismic activity. Historic buildings are not exempt from local seismic upgrading ordinances, but the SHBC continues to govern the upgrading. Likewise, we as a society are committed to provide the highest degree of accessibility for people with disabilities that can be reasonably achieved without peril to the historic resource. And here too, the latitude provided by the SHBC, working with the ADA, makes possible reasonable solutions on a case-by-case basis.