SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. –California’s Office of the State Fire Marshal is reviewing a change to the state’s building code that would create a new occupancy classification intended to regulate laboratories operated by life science companies — with newly built labs having to face changes in the storage rules for flammable liquids as well as some tighter fire-prevention standards.
The fire marshal’s office is studying a draft version of a second “L,” or laboratory, occupancy classification intended for industrial laboratories, in addition to the current one used for university labs. Once the fire marshal’s office signs off on the proposed ”L” occupancy, it would be taken up by the California Building Standards Commission, which oversees the state’s building code.
The head of a committee that studied the issue for the fire marshal’s office told BioRegion News last week he expected the building commission would receive the draft proposal by the end of this month.
“Probably the document is going to go through 100 percent. I don’t see any major changes from our chief, but that’s her prerogative,” said John Guhl, the head the committee or “task group,” and a supervisor with the California fire marshal’s office.
Guhl added that a sign-off by the state fire marshal’s office would render the industrial “L” a state-approved alternate to the building code, suitable for use by local building officials at their discretion.
“Hopefully, the local building officials will see it that way too. Now the question comes in, could they make it more restrictive for their communities? The answer is yes,” Guhl said.
To discourage that, Guhl said, the state fire marshal’s office may offer a formal interpretation of the code stating that industrial labs are occupancies as subject to its regulation as university labs. But that view has yet to be embraced by the fire marshal’s office, he said, adding: “In my opinion it is, but it’s something about which we have to sit down and talk.
“In my opinion, hazardous materials are applicable to any occupancy, and the state fire marshal has regulatory authority for any [hazardous materials] in California. Otherwise, where do you draw the line?” Guhl added.
The industrial “L” would be added to the state’s new Building Code set to take effect Jan. 1, 2008. That code was approved earlier this year following a routine review of the state’s building and fire codes that takes place very three years.
The proposed “L" classification reflects more than a year of dialogue by biotech industry advocates and leaders with Katherine Dargan, the state’s fire marshal since April, and previously assistant fire marshal under her predecessor Ruben Grijalva, now director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.
Late in 2005, the biotech industry began lobbying the state to modify its rewrite of the building code. The industry argued that the code, approved earlier this year, would choke the industry’s future growth in the state, in part by forcing many biotechs and pharmaceuticals to reconfigure their lab spaces.
The original 2007 code would have required that only given quantities of “class 1B” flammable liquids such as naphtha, methanol, and propanol could be stored within specific floors of multi-story buildings.
“Flammable” liquids are defined as those that give off steam at 22.8° Celsius [73° Fahrenheit] and have a boiling point below 37.8° Celsius [100° Fahrenheit].
The original 2007 code would have restricted biotechs to storing given quantities of flammable liquids in designated floors: Up to 100 percent of the maximum allowable amount in the first floor, 75 percent in the second floor or first subbasement level, 50 percent in the third floor or second sub-basement levels, 12.5 percent in floors 4 through 6, and 5 percent in floors 7 through 10.
“Looks kind of great, huh? Try and run a research lab with 5 percent of the allowable chemicals. Seven and a half gallons of flammable liquids [on one floor]? How many [high-performance liquid chromatography chromatographs] can I run? One? Two? So it’s kind of worthless to have a control area above the third floor,” said Reinhard Hanselka, president and principal chemical engineer of Integrated Engineering Services, a consultancy with offices in Santa Clara, Calif., and Panama City Beach, Fla.
“You would have had small laboratories above the third floor that would have been very difficult for owners of a building to lease, and difficult to enforce. You would have had some inspectors like Clint Eastwood with a pen, coming in counting your bottles, because you can’t have too many,” Hanselka added. “Pretend I’m in South San Francisco. I’ve got a four-story legally complying building. I put my best researcher on the fourth floor; he’s got a view of the Bay. He’s now illegal.”
The code set to take effect Jan. 1 also worried fire officials, he said, because it allowed for storage of flammable liquids in multiple “control” areas, versus the single area allowed in any of four sets of floors under the 2001 code.
The current code, Hanselka noted, allows storage of up to 30 gallons of flammable liquids in any set of floors: the first two sub-basement levels, floors 1 through 4, 5 through 7, and 8 through 10. The new code adds a limit of a single control area of up to 5 percent of flammable liquid in the 10th or higher floors, and a ban on flammable material below the second sub-basement level.
Hanselka addressed some 100 biotech professionals and vendors specializing in construction and development services during a breakout session at GeneAcres 15, a day-long conference hosted by BayBio, the group representing the life science industry in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We explained to them that [the code change] would basically shut down biotech activity in multiple-story buildings, and that we have this impeccable safety record. We argued that we were not trying to escape regulation; that we were very happy to live with safety regulations. But with this new code, we told them, you’ll shut down our business,” said Matthew Gardner, president of BayBio, the group that represents the San Francisco Bay Area’s life sciences industry, in an interview.
“The oversight was that they didn’t realize that going over the new code would dramatically alter biotech properties. We had to go to the state fire marshal, and she was very cooperative,” Gardner told BioRegion News.
Gardner said the industry also argued that absent the “L” category, complying with the new building code would average $5 million in renovation costs for average-sized biotechs occupying between 20,000 and 40,000 square feet, “just to move all their lab work downstairs.
“It would have required companies to maintain a bunch of one-story buildings, creating sprawl,” Gardner added.
California state fire marshal Dargan referred questions to her senior deputy fire marshal, Kevin Reinertson, who referred questions to Guhl. The commission’s executive director, David Walls, last week referred questions on the “L” measure to the state fire marshal’s office.
The commission would have to solicit public comment on the industrial “L” classification, and could hold a formal public hearing if it receives what it deems a large volume of comment.
“You would have had small laboratories above the third floor that would have been very difficult for owners of a building to lease, and difficult to enforce. You would have had some inspectors like Clint Eastwood with a pen, coming in counting your bottles, because you can’t have too many.”
Hanselka said Arizona, Oregon, and Washington state officials have contacted his office seeking to enact their own “L” occupancy classifications for commercial biotech labs.
‘Built With Biotech in Mind’
Hanselka, an engineer who once served as fire marshal for Palo Alto, Calif., told BioRegion News last week the lobbying effort spared the state’s biotech and pharmaceutical employers from having to retrofit their facilities in order to comply with the new code. Unlike most states, California requires property owners seeking approval for a partial renovation to bring their entire property into conformity with new codes, rather than grandfathering the existing premises.
“We worked with Kate Dargan and we got an “L” that works fine, that has everything that the old code had, plus some more mitigation,” Hanselka said. “The [second] ‘L’ occupancy has been built with biotech in mind. You all need to be experts on the 'L' very soon … Otherwise, you’re existing non-conforming. You can’t change a door without removing your chemicals from your fourth floor.”
During his presentation at GeneAcres 15, Hanselka detailed the “L” designation and highlighted several differences between the new building code and the 2001 code it will replace.
- Separation of occupancies: The L designation will require a 2-hour fire barrier between rooms on the 5th and higher floors of buildings, and a 1-hour fire barrier on the 4th and lower floors. The current code allows a separation between building areas connected by a horizontal exit with a minimum 2-hour fire resistance rating.
- Number of exits: The minimum size for lab spaces that require two exits will increase from more than 200 square feet to more than 500 square feet.
- Liquid-tight floor: The new code continues the requirement governing the floors of industrial laboratories such as those used by biotechs.
- Length of common path of egress travel: The new code imposes a 75-foot limit; the old code did not limit the length of those paths.
- Travel distance to exits: No more than 100 feet in the new code, compared with the present 75 feet.
A task group of fire professionals, local building officials, architects specializing in biotech space, and biotech industry representatives has examined the industrial “L” classification in recent weeks, concluding it conformed to the standards of the international building code, the more widely used of two model codes used by states as templates for their own building codes.
The changing of some of the 2001 code standards, Hanselka said, reflected consensus thinking by fire officials that they were superseded by the ability of sprinkler systems to contain damage wrought by fires: “We’re relying on the integrity of these sprinkler systems. You’d think a sprinkler fairy wrote this new code, because they’ll be a very important part of new construction.”
Given the increased reliance on sprinklers and California’s susceptibility to earthquakes, he said, property owners should take extra care to protect their underground water systems.
Hanselka called the revised code “the most radical change in the code methodology we’ve had in the past 30 years.” One change allows chlorinated polyvinyl chloride plastic pipes to be used in residential water supply piping systems, expanding on the limited use allowed since 2001.
Other changes to the code, he said, reclassify to more restrictive classes aircraft building facilities and auto repair shops where welding is allowed. And the classification covering semiconductor manufacturing plants comes with a series of code changes retroactive to Jan. 1, 2007.
“General contractors: Go hit the semiconductor guys. There’s a lot of business there,” he said.