From Mall to Mega-Church

With the downturn of the economy and the exit of big-box retailers such as Sears and K-mart, an increasing trend is to turn these former shopping spaces into houses of worship. Making headlines locally (South Florida), is Christ Fellowship, which is creating a fifth campus in a vacated Dillard’s store . A current campus in Royal Palm is a former Target store. Perhaps, you have one of these moving into your jurisdiction, or maybe you're a pastor contemplating the future take over of your local Best Buy. In either case, here are a few things to consider.
No doubt, it takes much work to turn a mercantile occupancy (used for the display and sale of merchandise) into a place of assembly (used for a gathering of 50 or more persons for deliberation, worship, entertainment, etc.). The National Fire Protection Association, Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) states that when a building changes occupancy type (from mercantile to assembly) the space must meet the existing fire/life safety codes for the newly created occupancy (existing assembly), however, the fire alarm, automatic sprinkler, and communications systems must meet the requirements for new construction. (101:

One of the first things to consider before delving into the fire code is total occupant load. Typically, a house of worship will have fixed seating making the actual occupant load the total number of seats (to be shown on submitted plans). However, without fixed seating the calculation will be based on a less concentrated use, which allows for 15 sq.ft. per person. (101: These former shopping centers can easily exceed 100,000 sq.ft. (the aforementioned Dillard’s is 127,000 sq.ft.). Based on this calculation (without fixed seating), the allowed occupant load would be more than 6,500 occupants. This easily exceeds the system requirements that come into effect for occupant loads of over 300, and also requires a minimum separation between the assembly and mall area of 2 hours. (101:

The system requirements for new assembly occupancies include:
  • Full fire alarm system with voice communication/evacuation. (101: 
  • Automatic fire sprinkler system. (101: 
Mercantile occupancies of this size should already be equipped with fire alarm and sprinkler protection.

Every church has a stage (in church terms, a “platform”). The stage shall meet the requirements of NFPA 101:13.5, which include: 
  • Inclusion of a proscenium curtain (a curtain separating the stage from the auditorium). 
  • Stages over 1,000 sq.ft. shall be equipped with standpipes for fire fighting. 
  • Fire sprinklers are required, including under the stage area (see exceptions in 101: 
In addition to spiritual feeding churches are providing physical feeding, by way of in-house restaurants and cafes’. (101:13.7.2) 
  • Cooking equipment is required to be protected by a hood and suppression system. 
  • Candles and flaming dishes are to be properly protected and approved by the local fire authority. 
  • LP gas appliances are to be listed and installed per applicable codes (NFPA 58). 
Open flames and pyrotechnics are prohibited from use in all assembly occupancies except for ceremonial or religious purposes. The local fire authority should be consulted prior to use, and every precaution taken to prevent the ignition of flammable materials. For more information on regulations for the use of pyrotechnics see, NFPA 1126 and NFPA 160. (101:13.7.3)

Trained crowd managers are required at a ratio of 1 per 250 occupants. Assembly occupancies used exclusively for worship with an occupant load of less than 2,000 is exempt from the crowd manager requirement. (101:13.7.6)

Seats in areas accommodating more than 200 persons are to be securely fastened to the floor. In restaurant, and other entertainment areas where permanently fastened seats are not practical unsecured seating is permitted. (101:13.7.9)

Any assembly occupancy with an occupant load greater than 6,000 requires a life safety evaluation. This evaluation shall be performed by a person acceptable to the local fire authority, and is to include an assessment of building systems, features, and management. The evaluation shall contain an in-depth analysis of possible hazards, and emergency response plans. (101:13.4.1)

Related Posts: