Follow the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.
I went into the building inspector’s office, handed him the building permit application paperwork, and had a seat. The building inspector started to look over the building permit application when he paused and asked me what the owners intended to do with the building when it was done.
He was trying to determine if each room in the wellness center had to be equipped like a doctor’s office would need to be equipped. I replied that there was not going to be any medical doctors practicing there and no request was being made for upgraded electrical outlets.
Inspecting the Floor Plan
As we went through the building permit application and the building plans, the building inspector started to key into the names of each room that was listed on the building plan. The structural engineer had told me to be careful naming the rooms on the building plans, because an inspector could question floor loads. For instance, naming a room on the second floor a closet may make the building inspector wonder if chairs, tables and other heavy items might exceed the floor load rating of the floor in that area. To avoid confusion, I made sure that I wrote “linen closet” on the prints wherever there was a second floor closet.
An area on the building plans that the building inspector started paying extra attention to was on the second floor: I’d named the large room “open room” on the building plans.
“What is going to be happening in this room labeled “open area?” he asked. I was told that the area would be used for classes and areas to meditate. “Like yoga classes?” the building inspector asked.
“I would guess so,” I responded. “And maybe some classes where people would sit at tables.”
I was starting to wonder where the building inspector was going with his line of questioning. As he continued, I started to feel that he was prying for as much information as possible. I opened the building plans and showed him the areas of the building plans that called out the 26 different details of floor loads, wind uplift, and everything else that the structural engineer had me draw.
“How many people are going to be up in the open area at a time?” he asked. I replied that the township documents stated that they could only have 10 appointments per day during normal business hours and no more than 20 people per day for group activities.
“That is a big room on the second floor,” the building inspector said, almost enticing me to respond. I did respond with a well placed (at least I thought), “Yes it is.” I learned to listen more than speak when it came to trying to figure out people during their line of questioning and this process was no different.
After a short, awkward pause, the building inspector said, “Do you think that the owners will have more than 20 people at a time up on that second floor?”
To which I responded, “I hope not, the township says that they can only have 20 people at a time.” My response made him sit back in his chair and take a deep breath. I sat still and waited for him to say something. He reached for the commercial code book and I thought, “here we go.”
At that point in the conversation, we had been discussing this building permit application and the building plans for over 30 minutes. I planned on being there as long as possible to get our building permit; all afternoon and into the evening if I had to.
“More than 20 people can fit in the upper area, wouldn’t you agree?” the building inspector asked me.
“Yes.” I responded. You can tell that someone is taking a legal route in a conversation when they say what he said next.
“Is it reasonable to assume that the owners would want to grow their business and, ultimately, have larger groups of people use that big open area?”
“Yes, that is a reasonable assumption,” I said confidently.
Determining Safe Occupancy Numbers
The building inspector replied that, liability-wise, we need to look at how many people that building could hold if the owners ever went back to the township to request a larger number of attendees at a time. I asked whether a maximum number of people are allowed in a building based on square footage. He said yes. He used a multiplier that showed what the building’s safe occupant load was.
A building has to be safe for its occupants, meaning fire exits, bathrooms and many other things. The building inspector looked through the code book searching for the section that talked about occupancy. When he found that section of the code book that listed out the codes for occupant numbers, he adjusted his glasses high on his nose and started to scan the text. Meanwhile, I was sitting there trying to imagine what he was reading.
“Well, this might not be good,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“Any building with ‘X’ number of occupants [I am purposely not mentioning that exact number because this article is not intended for instruction] requires fire suppression, an elevator, multiple means of egress and the list goes on.”
“That number is four more than what your multiplier told us that the building could hold,” I replied. “What does the code book say about our number of occupants?” He once again adjusted his glasses higher up his nose. I watched his face for when he found the text that I was asking about.
“OK, I think we are in business,” he finally said. ‘X’ number of occupants requires one additional means of egress to the outside (an exit door with a sign above it), one bathroom per 15 people and, to avoid needing an elevator, the owners would need to offer the same on the main floor as they would upstairs. But that’s not all. Additional requirements include specific sizes for the stairs, handrail height, and other features.
The building inspector has been incredibly involved to this point; moreso than for a typical plan review for a residential project. I was hoping that he was recognizing that I wanted to make sure that everything that was required got done and that this permit would be secured no matter what.
Defeat or Determination
At this point, our meeting was approaching an hour and a half in length. I felt positive that I was leaving there with the building permit. I could feel it!
The conversation with the building inspector turned back to a plan review. We discussed the new guidelines that he found in the code book and made it very clear that he was writing on the building permit paperwork that although the township paperwork mentioned a certain number of people per day, that the building had a maximum occupancy that was higher. The building inspector was thinking of township liability and my liability as the builder in every comment he made. I really appreciated that fact.
“I don’t see the second egress point on the second floor”, the building inspector said. I pointed to the center of the south wall of the large room. He nodded. The building permit was almost in hand, I was getting excited but trying not to show it.
“We need another bathroom in this place, on the main floor,” he said. I pointed to where we originally wanted an elevator, but would now be a closet. We could make that a bathroom. I was really feeling confident now about leaving with the building permit. I looked down at my phone and I had several texts from the owners asking if I had the permit in hand. I texted: “almost”.
“So, there are no treatment rooms upstairs?” I responded that no, only classroom space was upstairs, and if you look closely on the main floor, we have an area in the center that we can put a large television screen and speakers to broadcast down there what is happening upstairs. “And you will make sure that everything else is built to the code?” he asked. Absolutely.
“So we got it?” I asked.
“The building permit?”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” he stated. “But I need to see the changes on the building plans before I can issue a permit, so make the changes and resubmit everything when you get them done.”
My jaw dropped. After nearly two hours of discussing the project, I was not going to leave with a building permit. I have learned that there are many ways to handle situations like this: You can be overcome with frustration at the many hoops to jump through for a building permit. Or, you can show determination.
As long as I know that there is a chance of success, I will do everything in my power to succeed including biting my tongue and jumping through every hoop. I called the owners to give them a report.
“Did we get it?” the owners asked on our conference call.
“No, but we are getting closer.”
Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.
Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project Michigan. Adam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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