The International Building Code (IBC) helps ensure a minimum level of safety for any building. However, the building code is meant to be a baseline. There are times when church leaders make a conscious choice to exceed those safety basics with their church design. There are also times where you may be required to exceed the basics because of the types of activities that take place in your church building.

Going Above and Beyond with Your Church Design

There are some straightforward ways that church leaders choose to exceed the safety basics required by code. Some can be very simple and not overly expensive. For example, we have worked on church designs that voluntarily included extra smoke detectors.

Some church leaders go much farther. We’ve had conversations with a few of them about installing automatic sprinkler systems because of safety concerns, something that can be a pretty expensive addition. But it’s also an added investment in the safety of everyone who enters your church building.

Incorporating Emergency Evacuation Shelters into Your Church Design

Another area where more churches are going beyond the basics is with storm shelters, although in some areas and situations these may be required. One type of shelter is the emergency evacuation shelter. This is a place where people can gather for safety after a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, winter storm, or other significant event has left them without shelter. To prepare for events like this, you would need to install backup generators, showers, sometimes commercial kitchens, and open spaces in your church building (without fixed furniture) that can be used as gathering spaces and for sleeping.

Does Your Church Building Need a True Storm Shelter?

Another type of storm shelter is one that can withstand the storm itself and provide a safe refuge for people as the storm comes through. These types of shelters are more durable and expensive. They are also required by the IBC (and thus in most states) for many types of buildings, including some new educational facilities. This is important for church leaders to understand.

In some states, the storm shelter requirement applies to all educational facilities, including schools within a new church facility. However, there are exceptions for daycare facilities and “occupancies that are accessory to religious worship.” This means that if you just hold Sunday school classes or small groups in your church building on Sundays, you don’t need to have a storm shelter in place. However, if you have any sort of school, anything from preschool through twelfth grade, you may need to include a dedicated storm shelter that can safely hold all occupants of the entire building. (Of course, every state makes its own decisions regarding storm shelters. For example, Ohio has been delaying the implementation of storm shelter requirements for three or four years.)

What does this mean? That space must have increased roof strength and wall structural design. It must have multiple exits, minimal windows, and be fire separated from the rest of the building. It must have emergency power for light and ventilation for up to two hours, through a generator or battery system. This storm shelter also has to have its own restrooms and first aid station, and many other very specific details. Schools typically combine storm shelters with other big spaces like the cafeteria or a gymnasium (since locker rooms contain restrooms and showers).

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to safety for your church building. We know such building code requirements are not top-of-mind for most church leaders. This is why we implemented our free i3 webinars—to help you understand what’s involved in creating a safe church design and constructing a safe church building. Sign up for our next i3 webinar today!