Preplanning Buildings with Vertical Renovations


It is 4:00 a.m. An engine and a ladder company turn into a street lined with residential buildings, apparently of Type III ordinary construction. A fire is reported in the bedroom of an apartment on the fourth floor of a six-story building. The pumper pulls up in front of the building, which has a store on the first floor and apartments above. The officer immediately spots light smoke emanating from a window on the fourth floor. He orders his crew to stretch a 1¾-inch handline to the building’s residential entrance, with enough hose to reach and cover the fourth floor.

The officer enters the building at the street-level entrance to the stairway, where he sees straight-run stairs that extend from the first floor to the third floor, with an intermediate landing at the second floor (photo 1). At the third-floor landing, he opens a door leading to a public hallway that reminds him of a residential building of Type I fire-resistive construction. Another door leads him to an enclosed fire-rated stairway that leads up to the sixth floor of this unusual building. He chocks all the doors through which he has gone and orders the handline stretched up to the fourth floor, not quite knowing with what he is dealing.

(1) Photos by author.

On entering the apartment from which the smoke had been emanating, he notices a definite smell of burning wood and a light haze throughout the apartment but no sign of fire.

He sends a member of his crew to the floor below. The member opens the ceiling next to a light fixture that has black smoke stains around it. A small fire is burning around the electrical box. On opening the ceiling further, the firefighter discovers a large cockloft space. The firefighter reports this to his officer, wondering why there is a cockloft between the third and fourth floors.

These firefighters have just encountered a three-story building with a three-story vertical extension.


In spite of the recent economic downturn, the surge in real estate values in New York City, the increase in value of co-ops and condominiums, and the corresponding increases in rent continue to create a demand for more and more residential dwelling units. The construction of new multiple dwellings and the conversion of commercial spaces to dwelling units are two ways that the real estate industry is fulfilling this demand. Converting cast-iron-column lofts from heavy commercial to dwelling units is one striking example. This phenomenon is probably occurring in most of the older cities in the United States, particularly where there is a demand for upscale housing.

Building owners have long considered different ways of generating additional revenue from their properties. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, owners of residential buildings of ordinary construction on Manhattan’s Upper East Side began subdividing railroad apartments. These apartments, typically found in tenement buildings, usually consist of four box rooms, one leading to the other without a hallway. Rooms go front to rear, resembling the configuration of a four-car railroad train. The original two apartments per floor were subdivided into four studio apartments per floor, along with substantial increases in rent.

These renovations required constructing additional fire escapes or installing automatic sprinkler systems to comply with egress requirements. Recognizing and addressing these renovations became an important part of preplanning for Fire Department of New York companies in the area. Most tactical considerations were addressed through standard operating procedures (SOPs), but the changes resulting from the renovations had to be identified and addressed.

Several years ago, a new trend was identified: Building owners discovered they could expand vertically. Numerous lower Manhattan buildings have been expanded by adding additional floors above the building’s original roof. This trend has now been seen throughout the commercial and residential areas of New York City. Is this practice of adding vertical extensions occurring in urban areas nationwide? Fire departments in small to large urban areas with ordinary construction and loft buildings must identify these structures and plan accordingly, based on the fire department’s resources and SOPs.

This article will focus on several specific buildings, pointing out various construction features that firefighters may encounter and how they may affect firefighting operations.


Based on my findings, I determined that there are two general categories under which a building owner may add additional floors to an existing building.

Category 1: Complete renovation. The entire building is renovated as a new building; building and fire code requirements for a new building apply to the entire structure.

Category 2: Partial renovation.Only the additional floors added on are subject to building and fire code requirements that apply to new buildings; the lower floors must comply only with the building code requirements in effect when they were originally built.

Lower Manhattan’s Soho area (SOuth of HOuston Street) was originally a commercial district consisting of mainly cast-iron-column buildings. It has since become primarily residential; first-floor occupancies may include restaurants, art galleries, and clothing stores. It was once known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres” as a result of many spectacular fires that plagued the area.

Three-story extension. In photo 2, this Soho building is of Category 2 construction. Although it appears to be a three-story tenement with a first-floor store, it was originally a three-story commercial building. The steel I-beam girder (photo 3), which replaced the original heavy timber girder supporting the second floor, indicates it is a commercial building although it is of “ordinary construction.”




This building has three additional floors built on top of the existing structure, set back about eight feet from the front edge of the original building’s roof. In photo 4, note the transition of the original structure’s third floor to the fourth floor of the extension. The new floors have one set of enclosed scissor stairs above the third floor, with a fire resistance rating. There is sprinkler protection in the stairs and hallways throughout the building. A standpipe system also is in place from the second to the top floors. The stairs terminate on the roof at a roof bulkhead, which can be vented in a fire. An elevator has also been installed. The new floors are poured concrete over Q-decking, supported by steel I-beam joists. The interior partition walls are constructed with all-metal studs. The exterior load-bearing walls are concrete block and brick. This addition would be classified as Type I fire-resistive construction.


In this building, features of which firefighters must be aware include the following:

1 The original building’s cockloft space remains in place, creating a large combustible void space and an avenue for fire extension. In photo 5, in a building undergoing a similar renovation, the original cockloft is visible between the top of the fourth-floor windows and the scaffolding.


2 The straight-run stairs on the lower three floors are still in place, although the original wood stairs were replaced by steel-and-concrete stairs.

3 The lower part of the building still has all of the fire extension possibilities normally found in a building of Type III ordinary construction.

4 As seen in photo 2, the second and third floors are still protected by fire escapes, while the upper three floors are not. This is a key clue to the nature of the building.

At a fire in the upper three floors of a building like this, high-rise multiple dwelling tactics are indicated, with a designated attack and evacuation stairs. The incident commander would have to control vertical and horizontal ventilation.

The lower three floors would require tactics employed in ordinary construction buildings. Vertical ventilation of the stairways and public halls is possible from each floor because the straight-run stairs open into one of the scissor stairs. Although this door could be chocked open, in a fully developed fire this would be an extremely hazardous operation. Horizontal ventilation and entry by the fire escape are tactical considerations.

Boutique hotel conversion.In another vertical renovation on Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, three additional floors were added above the roof (photo 6). Originally a 19th century tenement, the structure has been transformed into a small boutique hotel and appears to be in Category 1. The renovation included complete interior demolition and reconstruction on the existing floors. One pair of enclosed interior fire-rated scissor stairs was installed from the cellar to the roof. The stairs are in one shaft but are separated from each other with fire-resistive construction. Again, the stairs terminate in a bulkhead that can be opened for roof ventilation.


A major firefighting consideration involves roof access by aerial ladder, which could prove difficult because of the new height of the building. This building will, however, have fire protection features similar to a Type I fire-resistive building.

Fire spread potential from apartment to apartment and floor to floor is reduced, although this protection cannot always be assumed to be effective in renovated buildings.

The fire-resistive stairs and public hall, as well as new construction in the interior, give this building many of the features of a fire-resistive building. Again, you must designate attack and evacuation stairs at a fire in this building.

Penthouse addition. A type of renovation that presents tactical firefighting problems is illustrated in the building shown in photo 7. This Category 2 building, a Type III ordinary construction multiple dwelling with a light commercial occupancy on the ground floor, has a two-story extension on the roof. This two-story vertical extension is a duplex penthouse.


The major firefighting problem it presents is that the single interior stairway terminates at the top floor of the original building, with a landing that leads to the penthouse apartment entrance door. Although horizontal ventilation of the fire apartment would be effective, there is no means of vertically venting the stairway, except through the penthouse apartment. That tactic would be dangerous, particularly in the early stages of a fire. The stairway is protected with a sprinkler system, but that does not remedy the vertical ventilation problem, nor does it prevent a smoke condition from impeding egress from an upper floor, particularly in the case of a lower-floor fire with an open door to the fire occupancy. Note that a front fire escape provides access to each floor.

Ten-floor extension. The most remarkable renovation that I have found is a building at 195 Bowery (photo 8) on the Lower East Side. Originally, it was a five-story, 25- × 50-foot commercial building of Type III ordinary construction. Ten floors were added to an existing five-story structure.


What appears to be an impossible feat of structural engineering makes more sense when considering the actual design. An inspection of this building revealed that it was undergoing a complete Category 1 renovation. An additional 10 floors were added to create a 15-story building. Although the supporting brick walls on exposures 2 and 4 remain in place and support the original heavy wood beams that remain in place on the first through the fifth floors, additional footings were poured within the building to support steel columns spaced at 10-foot intervals. These columns support the structure above the fifth floor. On completion, this building will have many of the firefighting advantages of a Type I fire-resistive building.


Preplanning. Fire companies must actively seek out these buildings during preplan and building familiarization activities. Hands-on familiarization and evaluation of these buildings are essential. Check that scissors stairs are properly marked. Each staircase of a pair of scissors stairs must have its own designation, “A” or “B.” We often find that scissors stairs are mislabeled on alternate floors—e.g., the same staircase is labeled “A” on one floor and “B” on the alternate floor.

Renovations. Identify these buildings as they are renovated to monitor conditions and properly evaluate construction features. Most of the buildings discussed here were identified during the construction phase, which helped to identify structural features.

Size-up and tactics.Develop tactics that address each building’s unique features. Recognizing these features is key to initial building size-up. Since these buildings are a hybrid of fire-resistive and ordinary construction, companies must keep in mind which firefighting tactics to use, based on the location of the fire and the type of renovation. Note fire escapes; they indicate that the building was originally nonfire-resistive and probably retains some of those features. Note enclosed scissors stairs, which indicate features of a fire-resistive building. Designate attack and evacuation stairs. Make sure to verify that the stairways are properly marked.

Indentifying vertical extensions.Although some of these vertical extensions will be obvious because of different architectural styles, some may blend in well with the original building and will be difficult to detect, particularly at night and during an emergency.


Adding floors to the top of existing buildings appears to be a firmly entrenched trend in the construction industry. Landlords certainly benefit by increasing the return on their investments. Firefighters must be aware if this trend is taking place in their district and recognize how such buildings may affect their standard operating procedures. Although the story at the beginning of this article did not illustrate a complicated problem, a more fully developed fire would present much more difficult challenges.

RICHARD FUERCH is a deputy chief and a 35-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He is an adjunct professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice, teaching building construction and life safety systems. Fuerch helped develop FDNY’s course for newly promoted deputy chiefs.

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