What to Expect With the New Chicago Building Code


Decoding the code

As the first major updates to the Chicago Building Code in 70 years begin to roll out, the questions begin to roll in. Many of you are wondering how these changes will affect your development projects. Do these updates mean more expenses? Longer timelines? Sprinkler-lined ceilings in every single building?

Before the alarming dollar signs in your mind grow too large, let’s take a minute to review the details.

SGW has the inside scoop on the new Building Code from our Principal Emeritus, Lew Wilson, who served as a committee chair on the Code Modernization team. We’ll break down some of the major changes for you below.

But first, a bit of Chicago Building Code background.

Chicago Building Code History

In 1875, a few years after the Chicago fire, Chicago created a Department of Buildings and adopted its first Building Code that was six pages long. The code was aimed at minimizing future fires as well as disease.  While many felt the code was too restrictive, others believed the code wasn’t strict enough.

Updates to the code took effect around the turn of the 20th century, but due to corruption and understaffing, these revisions were difficult to enforce. The code finally underwent major changes in 1949, and only minor updates have been made since then. With an abundance of new building materials and technologies available today, it’s no surprise that a long-overdue revision was necessary.

2019 Building Code Highlights

What are the Chicago Building Code updates?

The first general revision to note is that today’s new code is much more in line with the International Building Code, which is widely used throughout the nation. This standardization will mitigate confusion among teams in different areas of the country, meaning more streamlined projects and less expensive errors, both of which are critical factors in development.

Here are some more highlights of the changes:

1. Fewer special approvals or interpretations needed for building materials

Alignment with the International Building Code means frequently-used and newer building materials, including roofing, masonry, glazed guardrails, solar panels, and cellular towers, will no longer need special approvals.

2. More material and design options available for small residential buildings (3 or fewer units in 4 or less stories)

These options include wood-frame and pre-fabricated construction, making it easier to rebuild on empty residential lots or to put additions onto existing buildings.

3. Greater reuse of existing attics and basements

With lower minimum ceiling height requirements in dwelling units, only 7’ across the board, renovating and expanding existing residential buildings will be simpler. The updated requirements also allow a wider array of light and ventilation options, though these changes won’t go into effect until the Mechanical Code is rewritten in 2020 or 2021.

4. More cost-effective reuse of smaller buildings

Building a two-story home? You’ll no longer need to meet the same wind requirements as a 15-story hospital. The new code offers a more flexible framework that establishes different requirements based on the scope of work being done.

5. Updated seismic design requirements

New seismic design requirements for taller buildings, hospitals, fire stations, and other critical facilities means improved public safety, while adhering to a less complicated design standard.

6. Revised accessibility standards

Updated accessibility requirements better comply with new state and national standards, making it easier to meet state and national regulations. Lifts and limited use/limited access vertical lifts will be now be acceptable in lieu of a full elevator at a fraction of the cost.

7. Updated energy efficiency and sustainable design requirements

The new requirements comply with the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code and Illinois-specific amendments, streamlining the process for creating an energy efficient building. Among the changes, open office areas are now required to have lights with occupancy sensors and HVAC systems for hotels (50 or more guests) must have automatic controls. Though already in effect, it’s important to note that residential buildings (4 stories or less) must perform post-construction air leakage and, in some cases, duct leakage testing.

8. Last but not least, sprinkler systems

Yes, sprinkler systems will be required in more buildings, but not all buildings. New buildings that will require sprinklers include all new hotels, residential buildings with four or more units, schools, event spaces that hold over 300 people, and hazardous industrial occupancies. However, because of these safety benefits, you may be able to use less expensive construction materials and procedures in small and mid-sized buildings, which will help balance expenses.

When do these changes go into effect?

Though you can start implementing these updates as soon as you’d like, there’s no need to take a red pen to all of your current design plans immediately. There’s time to continue educating ourselves about the code and ensuring our projects are best suited to meet it.

Take a look below to see when these changes will become mandatory.

Building Code Implementation Timeline-01.jpg

For more details into the Building Code revisions, please see the Modernizing Chicago’s Construction Codes booklet or access the full code here.

Have further questions? Ready to start incorporating the new code into your next project? Contact us today to get started.