Land Development Services

Fairfax County, Virginia

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Fairfax, VA 22035

Bill Hicks,

Navigating the Virginia Existing Building Code

Use of the Virginia Existing Building Code (VEBC) is required for most alterations to existing buildings, and its intent is to make renovating buildings easier and less expensive. Use the topics below as a guide to assist you in your design.

Existing Building Definition

An existing building is any building with a legal certificate of occupancy (in Fairfax this is also your non-residential use permit) that has been occupied in compliance with its originally intended use. The VEBC is not applicable for a building that was constructed without a permit and/or has no certificate of occupancy or is operating outside of its certificate of occupancy. Any building constructed prior to January 29, 1973 (the date of the first statewide code) is an existing building and the VEBC is applicable.

Project Scope

The VEBC requires the traditional code analysis to be augmented to determine what provisions govern. Add the answers to the questions below on your construction documents to ensure a timely and complete review.

  • What is the purpose of the renovation?
  • What is the area of the work being performed?
  • Where are the work areas?
  • What is the area of the floor where work is being performed?
  • What is the total area of work on each floor?
  • What is the total floor area of the building?
  • What are the repairs being performed?
  • What are the alterations being performed?
  • Are these Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3 alterations?
  • Is there a change of occupancy?

Work Description

The work description on the Building Plan Review Cover Sheet is an opportunity for the applicant to easily impart important information to staff. For instance, a simple work description of “update dining area of existing restaurant” tells the plan reviewer the space is Group A-2, not a change of occupancy and the work in the primary function area.

Repairs and Alterations

The VEBC has a tiered system of alterations that increases the level of requirements with a project’s size and complexity.

Repairs:  reconstruction or renewal for maintenance or to correct damage.

  • The new materials must not present a hazard and are to be similar in function to the existing.
  • Damaged structural elements must be evaluated.
  • Any new structural members and connections are to comply with the Virginia Construction Code (VCC)

Level 1 Alterations: removal or replacement of existing materials.

  • The existing level of safety must be maintained.
  • The new materials are required to comply with the VCC.

Level 2 Alterations: removal or installation of a wall, door, window, counter, etc.

  • Meets the requirements of a Level 1 Alteration.
  • The materials and methods in the new construction must comply with the VCC.
  • Existing floor openings must be evaluated.
  • The effect of the alteration must be evaluated for fire protection, means of egress, structural, electrical, ventilation and sanitation.

Level 3 Alterations: alterations with work areas greater than 50 percent of the building.

  • Meets the requirements of Level 1 and Level 2 Alterations.
  • The mechanical systems in high-rise buildings must be evaluated.
  • The elevators in a high-rise building must be evaluated.
  • Existing stairs must be evaluated.
  • Fire separation must be provided in existing townhouses.
  • The work areas must be sprinklered in:
    • High-rise buildings.
    • Rubbish and linen chutes.
    • Other areas depending on use.
  • A fire-alarm must be provided in the work area when required by the VCC.
  • Egress lighting per the VCC is required in the exit enclosure from the highest work area to exit discharge.
  • Exit signs must be provided in work areas.
  • Structural alterations must be evaluated.

Work Area

The work area drives many of the requirement in the VEBC, and its definition is critical to determine code requirements. The designer must clearly identify the work area and any work not occurring therein. As defined, the work area is the intended room, space, or portion of a building or structure where a wall or walls are added, relocated, or removed. Work area excludes:

  • The addition or elimination of any door or window.
  • Changes to or new installations of electrical, sanitation, ventilation, sprinkler, fire-alarm or other systems.
  • The removal of finished flooring or ceiling materials.
  • Portions of the building where incidental work created by the intended work.
  • Portions of the building where work not initially intended is specifically required by this code, for example, where accessible restrooms are added due to the alterations.

Change of Occupancy

Unless the code requirements of the new occupancy are more stringent than the requirements of the existing occupancy regarding accessibility, structural strength, fire protection, means of egress, ventilation or sanitation, no change of occupancy has occurred. Listed below are highlights of provisions that will affect a change of occupancy.

  • When the entire building undergoes a complete change of occupancy, accessibility features shall be provided.
  • Any repair or alterations associated with a change of occupancy shall comply with the applicable provisions of Chapters 5 and 6 of the VEBC.
  • When a change of occupancy includes a Special Use and Occupancy from Chapter 4 or incidental use from Chapter 5 of the VCC, the building must comply with the VCC provisions.
  • Enclosure of vertical openings must be evaluated to determine a required level of protection.
  • When Chapter 9 of the VCC requires a fire sprinkler or fire alarm system for the new occupancy, the systems must be provided throughout the change of occupancy area.
  • When the change of occupancy moves to a higher category, elements must comply with the VCC for the increased hazard. When the change of occupancy moves to a lower category, elements are acceptable provided the egress capacity is sufficient for the new occupancy.
  • The electrical service, number of outlets and lighting in the new occupancy shall comply with the NEC for the change of occupancy.
  • Where the change of occupancy includes a special occupancy from Chapter 5 of the National Electrical Code (NEC), the building shall comply with the provisions in the NEC associated with the special occupancy.
  • Where the new occupancy includes kitchen exhaust or increased ventilation requirements, the new occupancy shall comply with the Virginia Mechanical Code.
  • Where the new occupancy includes an increased plumbing fixture count, the number of fixtures provided shall comply with the Virginia Plumbing Code unless the occupant load is increased by 20 percent or less in occupancies other than Groups R, I, and E childcare facilities.
  • The building shall be evaluated structurally to verify compliance with the applicable provisions of the VCC for the new occupancy’s live load requirements.
  • Change of occupancy into hospitals, nursing homes and jails must wholly comply with the VCC.


The construction of an addition must comply with the VCC for the new construction. The effect of the addition on or corresponding alterations to the existing structure shall be evaluated using the VEBC. The height and area of the completed building and the addition must comply with Chapter 5 of the VCC. An addition cannot create a non-compliant condition in an existing building.

Historic Buildings

The VEBC gives some leeway when performing work on a historic building. The intent is to allow the historic character of the building to remain while ensuring that life-safety and accessibility is provided to the maximum extent feasible. The building must be a historic building as defined in Chapter 2 of the VEBC. A building is not historic simply because it’s old.

Repairs are permitted to be done with materials and methods conforming with the original construction provided they do not present or create a danger and do not use hazardous materials such as asbestos and lead. Any replacement glass in a hazardous location is to comply with the VCC.

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