Many people assume that if you have a big barn, you can open the big doors on the front and just let people in right from day one. Unfortunately, they draw this conclusion because that is exactly what most people do. However, no matter the age of the barn, unless it was built specifically as an assembly space for 100 to 200 people, it will need some modifications to make it safe for weddings.
Some changes are easy like extra exits, ramps, or push-bars on doors but some aren’t. And one of the biggest, sneakiest, and most expensive surprises is finding out that you may have to add sprinklers to the barn. And that alone can be an investment that will cost around $30,000 or more, depending on the conditions and the requirements, and takes the wind out of many people’s sails.
Now, is there an easy way to know if you need sprinklers or not? No, not really. And I know when I say that, it frustrates people. Trust me – I’ve been there myself. Oh, how I wished the County would give me a straightforward answer over the phone when I called them with the same question, but it didn’t happen.
And that is because, at the end of the day, the point of a sprinkler system is not to drive you crazy and make your renovation costs painfully high, the point is to save lives first, structures second. So the risk of being wrong is high for everyone.
With all that, there is a generic rule of thumb, based on the International Building Code that you can use in the early stages of planning or researching properties. Now, your barn will be rated a Group A occupancy for “assembly space” and if it has any of the following conditions, a sprinkler system is probably required.
The building is over 5,000 square feet
Occupant load is over 300 people
There is more than one floor (like a barn with a second-floor hayloft)
How will you know for sure? You won’t like this answer but the best way to find out for your barn is to set up a meeting with the local fire marshal and ask them. That means, don’t take this shortlist and make this call on your own. The fire marshal not only knows the codes that will be used to make the final call, but they also know how other factors impact the safety of people during fires.
For example, they will check the access to the barn for a fire truck, nearby water sources that can be used to extinguish the fire, and if there are other buildings close to the barn that could start a fire and jump to the wedding barn. They also will want to know how fast and far can people get away from the burning barn. And all those factors are site-specific, meaning, they need to see your barn to really know what needs to be done.
Yes, it’s frustrating to not have a simple answer, which is why this is a big shock for many folks. And this is why sometimes a venue opens without the use of their barn right away so that they can spend the time to get this part figured out and save the money if they need to.
So, to keep this from being a shock that bankrupts your venue business dreams early on, here are tips for getting your answers sooner than later.
Take lots of pictures of every angle of the barn, inside and out to bring to a meeting with your local fire marshal. Or better yet, a video.
Have measurements of the overall structure, including height
If you have buildings on the property nearby, also measure those and the distance between them. You can put these on a Google Maps aerial view of the property so that it’s easier to see their placement
With this same aerial view, indicate fire lanes, and proposed driveways with dimensions
Find out what the water source is for the property and locate it on the overall view. If you have hydrants nearby, show those as well.
Now, schedule a meeting with the local planning department and fire marshal to go over the documents. Let them know you are investigating the need for a sprinkler system or not. They may want to come to the property in person or have you come into the office.
If you have a beautiful barn as the main feature for your property, this is a necessary step in making sure you have a legally operating venue. And if you are exploring properties, hopefully, this helps you in determining what kind of property to select before you buy.