Atria and mezzanines: Rand Hall’s latest Code fiction

[Updated Oct. 8, 2018: I just made a video based on the blog post below. Also, I’ve removed two of the six mezzanine “issues” I had initially written about: first, the 200-foot limit for exit access travel within the atrium doesn’t prevent a different path of exit access travel from being compliant, since only one of the two egress paths (the shortest) defines the exit access travel distance; second, while I still think that the area of the so-called mezzanine at the roof level is greater than half of the area of the atrium below, it’s too hard for me to definitively measure such floor area to be absolutely sure. There is the additional issue that the open-air roof gallery is not exactly “sprinklered,” so it’s unclear if it’s area should be 1/3 or 1/2 of the room it is in. In any case, there are still four problems with the roof-top mezzanine assumption being argued by Cornell and the City of Ithaca, any one of which would render the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library scheme noncompliant. These four remaining problems are explained below, and in the video.]

 

I received an email yesterday from the Director of Code Enforcement for the City of Ithaca Building Division claiming that Cornell’s proposal for a fifth-floor roof gallery—above the Fine Arts Library now being constructed in Rand Hall—was actually a mezzanine within the atrium below. This is important since a 5-story building would be absolutely noncompliant, whereas a 4-story building (with mezzanine)—while still egregious—is supported by numerous Code variances that Cornell has obtained over the years. The Building Division Director wrote: “The roof top gallery must meet the code requirements for a mezzanine otherwise the building is non-compliant. I have discussed this issue with the design team several times and have been assured that it will be sized so that it does meet the code requirements for a mezzanine. The sizing of the roof top area must include the permanently enclosed space at that level and all the open area that can be occupied. I do not believe that the code requires the mezzanine to be open to the atrium because the mezzanine has two exits.”

He then quoted a portion of the 2015 NYS Building Code (based on the 2015 International Building Code, or IBC) which seems to support his argument: “Exception 2. A mezzanine having two or more exits or access to exits is not required to be open to the room in which the mezzanine is located.”

In response, I replied as follows (where all references to the Code can be found here):

You have quoted only part of the mezzanine requirements, which state that a mezzanine need not be open to the room in which the mezzanine is located if it meets certain criteria (having at least 2 exits). However, there are six other criteria for qualifying as a mezzanine that the roof gallery does not meet. If even one of the following six criteria is not met, then the building, as designed, is noncompliant.

1. The definition of a mezzanine in Chapter 2 of the 2015 IBC states that a mezzanine is “an intermediate level or levels between the floor and ceiling of any story and in accordance with Section 505.” Clearly, the open roof gallery is not between a floor and a ceiling of any space, since there is no ceiling above it. Therefore, it is not a mezzanine.

2. The definition of an atrium in Chapter 2 of the 2015 IBC states that an atrium must be “closed at the top.” Therefore, it is impossible to include an open-air roof gallery as part of an atrium, since the atrium, in that case, would not be “closed at the top.”

3. Section 505 states that a mezzanine must be “in” the room for which it is so designated, not “on top of” the room, as is the case with the roof gallery. Specifically, Section 505.2.1 states: “The aggregate area of a mezzanine or mezzanines within a room shall be not greater than one-third [can be increased to one-half with sprinklers] of the floor area of that room or space in which they are located.” [emphasis added]. This section twice reiterates that the mezzanine must be “within” or “in” the room or space. This is not just a figure of speech, but is deliberate and important. Mezzanines are allowed to have certain fire safety benefits, unlike ordinary stories, precisely because they are “in” another room, where occupants of the mezzanine are more aware of any fires that may originate in that room, since the mezzanine has what used to be called a “common atmosphere” with the room in which it is located. Being “in” the room is therefore integral to the very essence of a mezzanine, whether or not the “opening” between the mezzanine and the room it is in has been closed off per the exception; the advantages of being “in” the room still apply. It is improper to ignore that part of the definition, and just look at the requirements for maximum area. If one used only the logic of maximum area, then any space, say a third-floor office, could be considered a mezzanine of a larger second-floor space that happened to be below it, even if there were no logical connections between the two spaces, but only a vertical adjacency.

4. It is also problematic to even consider that an atrium can have a mezzanine within it, since atriums are just “openings connecting two or more stories … which are closed at the top and not defined as a mall. Stories, as used in this definition, do not include balconies within assembly groups or mezzanines that comply with Section 505.” What this definition refers to when it states that mezzanines do not count as stories is not a mezzanine within the atrium (which would make no sense), but rather a mezzanine adjacent to the atrium, i.e., within a story surrounding the atrium opening. Only a conventional room or space can have a mezzanine. An atrium is not a conventional room or space, but rather is defined as an “opening” adjacent to such rooms or spaces. Once “mezzanine” floor area is inserted into an atrium, that floor area is, by definition, no longer an opening between stories, and so cannot be part of the atrium. Rather, it would be part of the adjacent stories that surround the atrium.

[Updated Oct. 8, 2018: Issues #5 and #6 are no longer applicable, for the reasons explained in the update note at the top of the blog post.] 5. Even if the roof gallery were considered as a mezzanine within the atrium, it still would be noncompliant, since Section 404.9.3 of the 2015 IBC limits the “portion of the total permitted exit access travel distance that occurs within the atrium” to no more than 200 feet. If the gallery is considered as a mezzanine within the atrium, then the exit access travel distance within the atrium, measured from the most remote point of the roof gallery, and following the atrium exit access stair “B” all the way down to the 2nd-floor exit, would be far greater than the 200-foot limit for exit access travel distance “that occurs within the atrium.”

6. The total area of the enclosed and open occupied spaces at the roof level (what is being called a mezzanine) is approximately 2,275 square feet; whereas the floor area of the atrium (measured at the 2nd floor) is approximately 4,335 square feet. Therefore, the so-called mezzanine exceeds the allowable area, based on the atrium floor area.

You correctly state that the building is noncompliant if the roof-top gallery, including all enclosed and occupied open spaces on the roof, does not qualify as a mezzanine. I think it is clear that—for the 6 reasons given above—the roof-top occupied spaces cannot be considered as a mezzanine. Therefore, the building is noncompliant.

Please reconsider your preliminary Code interpretation and let Cornell and their architects know that their notion of a roof-top mezzanine cannot be logically sustained.

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