When planning a new or remodeled church building that includes a school, church leaders should be aware of the requirements for storm shelters. Building codes have become quite stringent about what must be built into educational facilities to protect against the weather, but there are some exceptions that apply to church buildings.

Do the New Storm Shelter Requirements Apply to Your Church Building?

In 2015, then again in 2018, International Building Code (IBC) storm shelter requirements were updated for all Group II Educational Occupancies. IBC codes are the most widely accepted building codes in America, which means that most municipalities are requiring these new rules. Whether or not these Group II regulations apply to your church design depends on what type of educational spaces you have in your church building.

There are two exceptions to the Group II code requirements. The first is for daycare facilities and the second is for educational facilities that are “accessory to religious worship.” This means that your nursery and Sunday School classrooms (on Sunday morning, adjacent to your worship space) are exempt. But if you have plans to include any other kind of school in your new church building or remodel project, even if it’s religious, you must follow the updated IBC codes.

What New Storm Shelter Requirements Must Be Part of Your Church Design?

If a non-exempt Group II school is part of your plans for your new or remodeled church building, here’s what’s involved. It must be big enough to hold all the occupants of your building. That includes not just all your students, but also all the teachers, all the administrators, and other staff, including the cooking and cleaning staff in your kitchen.

This storm shelter space will have increased roof and wall/structural design requirements to withstand tornado- and hurricane-strength winds. You will need to include multiple exits and fire separation from the rest of the church building in your church design. You must have emergency power for both light and ventilation, and adequate restrooms for all the people that use your storm shelter. There must also be access to first aid supplies among other requirements.

Making an Opportunity Out of This Storm Shelter Requirement

So how can you embrace the requirement to construct what will feel like a concrete bunker type of space on your church property? Schools are typically combining storm shelters with other large spaces they will want, like auditoriums, cafeterias or gymnasiums. In this way, you’re creating a multi-ministry church design that will keep everyone in your church school safe, as well as providing an indoor gathering space that can be used in other helpful ways.

Some churches are taking this one step further and publicizing the existence of their storm shelter to the local community. That way people know that, outside of school hours, their church building is a safe haven in case of tornado, hurricane, fire, or flood. While building a storm shelter can add to the expense of your church building project, it may well be a step worth taking if it supports your vision for ministry in your community.

These updated IBC storm shelter codes were discussed in one of our free i3 webinars. Sign up for these educational webinars to learn more about the church building process. Our list of topics for 2020 will be posted soon!