Q: I own an old commercial building and have finally found a potential renter. This will necessitate remodeling to meet the renter’s needs. When I applied for my building permit, I was told I have to comply with all sorts of new building code requirements that will probably make it impossible to economically justify the remodeling. What extent of remodeling triggers the requirement that new building codes be followed?

A: This is one of those questions to which there is no one, simple, bright-line answer. Generally, a presumption exists that current building code compliance is required any time a building permit is necessary. So, perhaps the more fundamental question is: what extent of remodeling requires a building permit?

Building codes are designed to ensure that safe structures are built to protect individuals from physical injuries and often to conserve energy as well. When determining the necessity of a building permit, Idaho law requires that a permit be obtained before making any structural changes to a building. Common structural changes typically include removing/altering load-bearing walls; cutting new windows; building additions; working on electrical, plumbing, or HVAC; etc. On the other hand, any non-structural alterations, which may include painting, tiling, carpeting, removing/adding certain interior walls, etc., may be completed without a permit.

Moreover, even in situations where a building permit is required, the permit cannot compel compliance with current building codes in areas of the building that remain unaffected by the renovation. This is the case in every area with the exception of accessibility requirements and any specific substantial safety hazards proven to exist. With respect to accessibility, a permit may require compliance with current building codes throughout the entire building—including upgrades to parking, elevators, restrooms, and building access—when only a small portion of the building is altered.

That being said, there still remains a possibility of obtaining a permit that does not require compliance with current building codes, depending on the type and scope of renovation planned. You will have the greatest likelihood of not being compelled to comply with current building codes when your renovation does not result in a substantial change in the building’s occupancy and when it does not significantly increase the demand for energy in the building. For instance, if you are converting office use space to retail use space, the change of occupant load and energy demand may increase substantially.

Ultimately, when determining whether obtaining a permit or complying with current building codes is required, the best course of action is to contact an attorney, your local building inspector, and/or area building code supervisor. I wish you the best of luck in your remodeling endeavors.

Ryan Jacobsen is an attorney practicing in Idaho Falls. This column is provided by the 7th District Bar Association as a public service. Submit questions to “It’s the Law,” P.O. Box 50130, Idaho Falls, ID 83405, or by email to farnam@holdenlegal.com. This column is for general information. Readers with specific legal questions should consult an attorney. A lawyer referral service is provided by calling the Idaho State Bar Association in Boise at 208-334-4500