Offices codes and standards change, accommodating new work styles

To appeal to various clients and work styles, office building codes and standards are shifting

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer January 13, 2023
Creative engineering designs at London’s Art Deco 80 Strand breathes a new lease of life into an iconic building. The mechanical and electrical services have principally been designed to be fully exposed, creating a striking industrial style workspace and set out to complement the existing original structural grid. Courtesy: Wind & Foster, HDR

Office building insights

  • Office building codes and standards are changing as owners and tenants expect more, especially high-performance and net zero buildings.
  • Electric vehicle charging stations, outside air and energy conservation are new trends in office space.

Miles Brugh, PE, Project Electrical Engineer/Manager, ESD, Chicago–Adrian Gray, C Eng, Eur Ing, Global Director – Commercial and Real Estate Sector, HDR, London–Matt Humphries, Associate Principal, Arup, Toronto–John Yoon, PE, LEED AP, Principal Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc., Chicago


  • Miles Brugh, PE, Project Electrical Engineer/Manager, ESD, Chicago
  • Adrian Gray, C Eng, Eur Ing, Global Director – Commercial and Real Estate Sector, HDR, London
  • Matt Humphries, Associate Principal, Arup, Toronto
  • John Yoon, PE, LEED AP, Principal Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc., Chicago

Creative engineering designs at London’s Art Deco 80 Strand breathes a new lease of life into an iconic building. The mechanical and electrical services have principally been designed to be fully exposed, creating a striking industrial style workspace and set out to complement the existing original structural grid. Courtesy: Wind & Foster, HDR

Please explain some of the codes, standards and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process for office facilities. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of?

Miles Brugh: In Chicago, the city has adopted International Energy Conservation Code 2021 as the current energy code. The code update has adjusted to be much more in-line with the ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings requirements including receptacle control, energy monitoring and secondary daylight harvesting. These new requirements are great in helping us reduce and monitor our overall energy footprint, but it takes some education and coordination with vendors to provide the most function and cost-effective solutions for our clients.

Adrian Gray: MEP-related work must comply with state, local municipal and in some cases local Authority having Jurisdiction (AHJ) requirements. Typically, most Building Codes use International Code Council (ICC) Codes and reference NFPA Standards, for Life Safety and Fire Protection. The ICC Codes, which comprises IBC, IMC, IPC, IFC, IEC, vary from State to state, municipality to municipality, in which ICC Code editions, for example in which year have these been adopted by officials in both Building and Energy Construction codes. Local AHJ requirements usually relate to Life-safety requirements and primarily focus on additional Fire Alarm and Fire Protection System requirements that must be taken into consideration for approval. These codes include NFPA 70 (National Electric Code), NFPA 72 (Fire Alarm), NFPA 780 (Lightning Protection), NFPA 110 (Emergency and Standby Power). Local AHJ includes local Fire Departments and, in some cases, local code officials. Select Federal requirements are required based on specific building program requirements, usually where Federal and/or State Govt Jurisdiction is involved in the development approvals. In addition, there are standards that usually are referenced either within respective codes, owner requirements, owner insurance underwriter or design consultant recommendations. These include the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), National Electric Code, IEEE Standards and Sustainability Programs.

John Yoon: My greatest concern is the emergence of Building Performance Standards. These usually have stated goals of greenhouse gas emission reduction/electrification. This will dramatically impact how we specify systems. Normally, the telltale lead-in to a BPS is the local municipality adopting a benchmarking ordinance to quantify building energy use. Benchmarking ordinances are often implemented through a program like Department of Energy’s Energy Star. Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager recently added estimated source and site greenhouse gas emissions data to this end.

Roughly 40 municipalities have committed to adopting building performance policies but there doesn’t seem to be much coordination regarding what each will eventually adopt. While model codes have been advocated by organizations like the Institute for Market Transformation, many jurisdictions have gone in their own direction, like New York City with Local Law 97. This lack of standardization will present uncertainty in the near term.

What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

John Yoon: The challenge is trying to predict how upcoming code and standards (that are still in flux) will impact the buildings that we design. Again, Building Performance Standards are the greatest concern. It’s clear that there will be significant new requirements soon, but there is usually minimal transparency in each municipality’s BPS adoption process. Without knowing what the specific requirements will be, the kneejerk reaction to trends toward decarbonization is to avoid specifying equipment that uses natural gas. But that often doesn’t serve the needs of our clients. In most cases, the best policy is to discuss these market trends with the client so that they can make an informed decision.

Adrian Gray: State and local building and energy codes require minimum requirements for development and construction compliance. In the MEP discipline, engineers should focus on best practices that improve 1) life safety, 2) fire protection, 3) energy efficiency/sustainability/high-performance buildings, 4) resiliency and 5) maintenance and operations above the code mandates. This can be accomplished through feasibility and code studies at the early onset of project development.

How are codes, standards or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such buildings?

Adrian Gray: Codes, standards and guidelines provide framework for the development of a building however, it is up to design professionals to push the boundaries with clients, based on industry trends, best practices and project needs. This requires a proactive communication process in which advantages and disadvantages can be weighed against owner concerns (for example budgets, operations, maintenance). At HDR we use our local knowledge to advise clients of current trends in the preferences of potential occupiers.

What types of systems and technologies are ahead of the code/standard curve? Have you specified something that doesn’t fall into any code requirements?

Adrian Gray: Smart building applications are typically not dictated partially or entirely on either building or energy codes. As such, these integrated components can provide building occupant savings. In Europe market trends for sustainability often drive specifications ahead of codes, an example being the use of circadian lighting systems and mixed mode ventilation systems.

John Yoon: What we’re seeing is that the code and standards are sometimes well behind the curve or being applied to projects where they don’t make much sense. Case in point is Phius and NGBS, which are geared toward residential projects. Those two standards have been incorporated as alternate compliance paths into our local energy conservation stretch code for commercial construction. While those two standards may eventually evolve into something more applicable to commercial office buildings, we’re left scratching our heads as to why they were included as opposed to a more applicable standard like International Green Construction Code/ASHRAE Standard 189.1: Standard for the Design of High-Performance Green Buildings.

What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing office facilities?

Miles Brugh: The unknown is one the most challenging aspects about working in an existing facility. You can study the as-built drawings and survey the space, but you will not know everything until the construction has started and walls are being opened. When we approach renovation projects, we study the as-builts and walk the space multiple times to help identify any risk items that could potentially impact the project. Once the construction starts, it is important to actively work with the contracting team as they find things to identify and talk with the client/owner to work through solutions based on what is found.

John Yoon: Deferred investment in updating base building MEP infrastructure. Older office buildings usually cannot command high rental fees. With lower NOI, building owners don’t have the same access to financing and have less incentive to replace/modernize obsolete systems.

Adrian Gray: Some of the greater challenges when working with existing facilities are 1) connection/extension to/from existing MEP/fire protection/fire alarm building services, 2) existing life safety deficiencies and code violations and identification/correction of these issues, 3) implementing infrastructure upgrades in older buildings where code updates result in complicated infrastructure issues and 4) service upgrades and associated coordination of infrastructure.

What are some of the challenges that exist between what the building owner wants, how the building needs to accommodate occupants and complying with particular codes and standards?

Miles Brugh: One of the main items is with the new IECC 2021 energy code. We are now required to provide 50% switch receptacles at all workstations. There can be a lot of concerns with automatically controlling outlets as it does rely more on the users to plug into the outlet.

Adrian Gray: Building owner/landlord preference is to have altered spaces and systems to be designed to exceed both building requirements and codes. However, consideration of best practices and codes can have implications on leases and create additional requirements on behalf of both building and occupier.

When designing such facilities, are life safety codes typically exceeded to ensure the building is always running properly to accommodate occupants’ needs? If so, how are you going above what is mandated by current codes?

Adrian Gray: In most cases, life safety codes provide a high level of design considerations related to occupant safety. Where life safety code updates occur, beyond local authority having jurisdiction, we may recommend these enhancements on case-by-case basis.

John Yoon: Life safety always takes precedence. There is no exception. The statues that govern professional engineering state that the reason to regulate the profession is to “protect the health and safety of the public.” So, while we often get caught up in the minutia of design and construction budgets, that overarching requirement should be at the heart of every design. Simply understanding the underlying goals of prescriptive life safety requirements can clarify the design process and provide dramatic improvements in functionality.