Printed from the blog of Lori Greene, AHC/CDC, CCPR, FDAI
Email:, Blog: or

Aug 17 2017

WWYD? Posted Occupant Load

Category: Egress,WWYD?Lori @ 12:31 am Comments (7)

Have you ever noticed a sign stating the maximum occupant load of a room?  How about a sign stating that the maximum occupant load is 49 people?  I’ve seen several signs stating the 49-person limit, and I recently received a question that made me ponder this.

The question was about a new residential high-rise; the top floor plan included two assembly spaces measuring almost 4,000 square feet in total, as well as some other common areas and several dwelling units.  The architect indicated that panic hardware would not be required on the doors serving the assembly spaces, because the occupant load would be posted at 49 occupants for each area.  When the occupant load is more than 49, the IBC requires a second means of egress and outswinging doors, and when it’s an assembly occupancy the IBC requires panic hardware.

This seems like a risky plan, especially since one of the assembly spaces exits through the other assembly space, so one door is accommodating the occupant load of both spaces.  The IBC includes some exceptions for small assembly occupancies that are part of another use group (more info on that here), but the spaces in question don’t meet the criteria for those exceptions.

If we calculate the occupant load of a 4,000-square-foot assembly space using the occupant load factor for unconcentrated use (15 square feet per person), the calculated occupant load is 267 people (here’s how you calculate it).  While it’s unlikely that this many people will be present on a regular basis, it’s possible that a resident could use these spaces for a party and have well over 49 occupants.  Since this area is not likely to be staffed at all times by building personnel, who is going to enforce the posted occupant load limit?

I checked the IBC to see what it says about posting the occupant load:

1004.1.2 Areas without fixed seating. The number of occupants shall be computed at the rate of one occupant per  unit of area as prescribed in Table 1004.1.2. For areas without fixed seating, the occupant load shall be not less than that number determined by dividing the floor area under consideration by the occupant load factor assigned to the function of the space as set forth in Table 1004.1.2. Where an intended function is not listed in Table 1004.1.2, the building official shall establish a function based on a listed function that most nearly resembles the intended function.

Exception: Where approved by the building official, the actual number of occupants for whom each occupied space, floor or building is designed, although less than those determined by calculation, shall be permitted to be used in the determination of the design occupant load. 

According to the IBC, an occupant load that is lower than the calculated occupant load can be posted “where approved by the building official.”  I don’t know too many AHJs who would approve a posted occupant load that is so much less than the calculated occupant load.

The question is…as a specifier/supplier/installer of hardware, WWYD if you were asked to do something that was not code-compliant (like omit panic hardware)?  How do you balance professionalism and liability with serving your client?

7 Responses to “WWYD? Posted Occupant Load”

  1. Ken Durbin says:

    Who would enforce this? This is why most would not approve this. I wonder want their insurance company would think? Most agents would not care or know this detail but their inspectors would.

    I must give my local city council credit for disapproving a local meeting room/hall in a business. Their concern was more on parking then life safety but they were concerns on enforcement.

  2. Eric Rieckers says:

    Like most people in our industry, I’m considered a “door expert” until I tell the A/E what they do NOT want to hear. That’s when I’m immediately discredited. Give the customer what they want, just have everything in writing. Although I draw the line at dead bolts on doors with exit devices.

  3. Rich says:

    I would point out the discrepancy and quote the correct hardware. It is a common problem that the sign could disappear in the future and then the doors would be wrong and no one would be around to remember the exception. Management can change, function or usage of the room can change. We have all seen rooms labeled for a certain size group and that number exceeded. Quote the correct hardware for the possibility of the room future.

  4. Alan Itzkowitz says:

    I have been in this position before. A transit agency I was working with once asked to have exits locked without the use of exit devices. They claimed that if they had exit devices installed, people would reach in and activate the device and walk into the station area without paying the required fare. We would not complete the design without showing the exit devices. I have not been to the stations we designed since so I can’t address whether or not the exit devices are still there.

  5. Daniel Poehler says:

    I never could understand why architects skirt the codes whether it be for esthetical, cost or for any reason for that matter. As licensed professionals we should never knowingly violate a building code. In my mind that would be one of the most unprofessional acts that one could commit. I too have been in compromising situations and have never betrayed my principles and ethics of professional conduct. I hope this answers your question.

  6. Cathy Kopp says:

    Many years ago, at a DHI COR102 Introduction to Building Codes class, the instructor asked us how we would respond in the witness box at a trial where someone died because of hardware we supplied. It has always stuck with me.

    Luckily, in my 20+ years in the industry, only once was I put in the position of possibly supplying questionable hardware. After numerous meetings, suggestions, and discussions, we ended up telling the contractor that the AHJ would have to sign off on it before the company would provide it. As it turned out, the AHJ would not sign off on it and the hardware was changed.

  7. Rick N says:

    We have had this happen a few times. Our solution was to have a brief letter that states that we feel the hardware being requested for this opening is not code compliant. We ask the building owner to acknowledge that they have been advised and release our organization of all liability should something unfortunate occur. I have yet to have someone sign the letter. It seems that it scares the others involved to check it out further. Given how lawsuit happy society is, they will then follow the code recommendations.

Leave a Reply