Thursday, December 1, 2016

Camps 'N Codes

Take a moment, close your eyes, and paint a picture in your mind of your childhood summer camp. Can you see it? Little rustic cabins, a fire ring in the forest, a wooden dock with canoes tethered to it, and an overall sense of magic adrift in the air. Now let me ask, did you remember to include the fire suppression systems, accessibility features, and the correct number of plumbing fixtures? I didn’t think so. While these elements don’t contribute to the overall allure of camp, they are all crucial to the construction of camp structures. This post kick starts our ‘Camps ‘N Codes’ series about Building Codes and Regulations and how they affect summer camps.  After the break is an introduction to the series. Be sure to check back over the next few months as we debut our ‘Case Study’ posts where we dive into our previous projects and discuss how we have handled camp specific code issues in the past.


For camp administrators, it is all too often that they find their vision of an alteration or expansion project is not in tune with the Building Codes and Regulations enforced by the local Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Where camp administrators wish to promote a rustic experience in natural settings, the Codes may require sprinkler systems, heating, additional plumbing fixtures, and full compliance with accessibility standards. The Codes are often not flexible enough or equipped with sufficient exceptions to address the specific use and needs of camps, especially seasonal camps.  There are many regulatory agencies that may impact a project, including but not limited to, building, health, engineering and zoning departments, agencies enforcing accessibility, design review boards, and fire departments. 

Building Codes and Regulations can impact the construction feasibility, the camp’s culture and ultimately the cost to build or renovate structures.  For example, camps often do not have access to public water, making the requirement for sprinkler systems costly with the likely need for water storage tanks and pumps.  In addition, for seasonal un-conditioned buildings, the system must be protected from freezing by draining and reactivating annually, providing an expensive dry system, or insulating and heating the building year-round.  The latter option, which may also be required to provide human comfort and promote energy efficiency, is not only expensive but changes the experience and culture of many summer camps. 

Building Codes and Regulations are in place to protect the health, safety and welfare of occupants.  Due to the unique building types and occupancy of camps, some of these regulations can unintentionally far exceed a standard level of care.  For example, while sprinkler systems are beneficial for life safety and protection of property, the argument could be made that a greater dependence upon fire and smoke detection and alarm systems would be a more rational and cost-effective solution for small, unheated cabins that provide very short travel distances to exit doors.  Although it takes time and resources to pursue, items such as these have been approved when appealed in many cases. 

Before taking on a building project, it is necessary to understand the issues in detail: what Agency, Department, or Code has jurisdiction, how to respond to their requirements and what impact does this have on the camp’s finances and vision.  To this end, it is recommended that a feasibility study is undertaken at the beginning of each project.  Design professionals, such as Architects, can assist with Code investigations, opinions of associated costs, and alternative design options to achieve the desired goals.    

It is also imperative for the camp organization and professional design team members to meet with the AHJs, including the Building Official, Building Inspector or Plans Examiner, the Director of the Department of Health, the Fire Marshall and any other applicable entities.  Their decisions and opinions are key to many of the issues that affect the project during the design and construction phase of the project.  It will be well worth the time to meet with these individuals early in the project to inform them of the scope of the project.  Although time is a precious commodity, most public officials are generally willing to listen to what is being proposed, explain how to expedite the compliance review process, and discuss points of concern and code issues that are important from their perspective.  Building an early relationship may encourage more flexibility when interpreting the Code and its application rather than pursuing a variance from the Board of Appeals. 

The bottom line to success for any camp expansion or renovation project is to make an informed and rational decision based on local, county, and state Building Codes and Regulations.

Remember to stay tuned for our case studies!


  1. Great read! Very informative.

  2. One of the many benefits of engaging with the full design team early in the process is that they will understand where the regulatory issues lay. The team can then work with the AHJ in the preliminary design phase to arrive at written agreements regarding what are commonly called "alternate means and methods". If the AHJ is satisfied up front, and the design team sticks to the agreement, then the regulations are for all practical purposes amended for that particular project. Pre-approval means no risk of having an appeal denied by the AHJ. The owner should, however, not depend on any particular exception being permitted for future work.