What to Consider when Considering Phased Occupancy

• John Kellberg
• Senior Superintendent
• Rafn Company

What can the developer / architect / contractor team do to make phased occupancy as easy as possible for the Building and Fire Departments to grant? Teamwork, pre-planning, and following jurisdictional requirements will yield the best chance for success.

Phased occupancy allows a project owner to begin using as much of their new building as possible as early as possible. This is accomplished by the contractor completing an area of the project that can be completely separated from existing and continuing construction operations. While this can be an advantageous route to pursue, many things must be in place for it to work and many of those things need to be planned well in advance for delivery to be reliable.

Specific to the City of Seattle, here is what should be considered when contemplating phased occupancy. Other jurisdictions may not consider this option and if they do, the process and requirements may be different.

  • When planning far enough ahead, phased occupancy can be written into the building permit and if approved, it better ensures that phased occupancy can happen, provided all provisions are met.
  • There are rules, such as the Seattle Fire Administrative Rule, that provide the requirements for obtaining a recommendation from the fire department for a phased occupancy.
  • Scrutiny is greater on projects that include housing, and even greater when that housing is for vulnerable populations.
  • The onus is on us to prove it is safe. The Building and Fire Departments are never swayed by economic or practical arguments.
  • The Fire Department must be satisfied with safety for the building’s occupants. Inspection items include fire alarms, fire sprinklers, and fire separations (fire-rated walls are complete and fire-rated doors are installed).
  • We have to prove that the public and the construction will be completely separated. No exceptions. Separate egress, stairs, parking, storage, etc.
  • The building needs to have at least two means of egress.
  • The entire parking garage needs to be complete with security and life safety at one hundred percent.
  • All areas affected by the permission to occupy must pass all construction finals, fire alarm and life safety inspections.
  • All furniture and finishes that could interfere with fire alarm audibility testing in occupied areas must be complete.
  • And finally, one caveat: Jurisdictions generally would rather not allow a phased occupancy. There is no incentive for them to approve it as they are only concerned with life safety, and it is better if the building is one hundred percent complete prior to public occupancy.

We were able to obtain a phased occupancy at a recently completed apartment project of ours in the City of Seattle. The project was made up of two buildings on two distinct properties on opposite sides of the street so that phasing was easy. But the north building was comprised of two distinct wood-framed towers on top of a single concrete podium that made up the parking garage. By completing the parking garage and the west tower in their entirety, the project owner was able to begin renting units while we finished construction on the east tower. This was only possible because each tower had two stair towers for egress.

Every project has unique features that will determine the likelihood of phased occupancy. In planning for an upcoming project in the Rainier Valley neighborhood of Seattle, the team strategized a multiple building permit approach which should allow several additions to be made to an existing building and be occupied separately. Another project of ours in the planning stages will involve the renovation of an 800-foot long building into new housing units. The team is currently working to determine ways to provide electrical service to the entire building with phased occupancy in mind, but without incorporating multiple systems if possible.

If you can avoid the need for phased occupancy, you will get a more predictable result. If you must try for phased occupancy, the key is to start these conversations early so that planning for the project can include all that is needed for success. Make sure each phase of the project has two means of egress. Sequence construction so that the parking garage will be complete along with all life safety measures. And finally, make sure that your construction work will be completely separated from the finished spaces. If the team works together and plans within the jurisdiction’s requirements, you have the best chance for success.

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