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Tips on Inspecting Buildings

When you get a set of keys to a building, the usual reaction is to get all excited about the wide array of amazing projects that could take off in there. The downside is that, under state and federal laws and subject to local council approvals, not all buildings can be used for all things. Some of them will cost you more to set up than you can possibly afford. Some of them will simply be unusable. Here’s a few quick tips on deciding whether a building is suitable for the project you’d like to put in it.

What Condition is the Building in?

Checking the condition of the building the first time you enter it and knowing when to say ‘No’ can save you a great deal of time, energy, money and risk. This is basic routine to go through when looking at a building:

(1) Does the plumbing work? Plumbing is one of the things you basically can’t replace or easily repair. Ask the agent or property owner if there’s been any problems, and check for any signs of leaks. Check to see if the toilets have water in them and the taps work. If they don’t it might just be that the plumbing is turned off, but it’s often a sign that the pipes themselves are cracked or in a state of disrepair. Look at things like the guttering and drains. Buildings routinely have small holes in the roof or minor leaks. What you’re looking for is signs the place will flood or signs that water could cause electrical shortages. That’s usually evident by water marks on the floors and walls, particularly in basements. If the plumbing and gutters are in a state of disrepair that’s usually a bad sign. It usually means the building has reached a point where using it is going to be extremely expensive.

(2) Find the power box, see if it looks like it will kill you and check to see if the electricity works. If you have a good electrician, some re-wiring can be cost effective for temporary projects, but it’s not usually a good sign. Faulty or suspicious wiring should be one of the key markers of whether you use a building or not. Trying to get a long neglected electrical system working again is dangerous and you should avoid it, particularly if you’re only using the building on a short term basis. You should also get an electrician to do it for you. You can get a new power box installed for between about $800 and $1500 in most cases.

(3) Do you actually feel safe in the building? Does it look like it’s going to fall in on you? Are there missing floor boards? Minor repairs are pretty much par for the course, but you want to avoid using a building that’s actually dangerous, has been condemned or looks like it’s on the cusp of being condemned. There are often legal issues around long term disused buildings – most commonly fire orders issued by the local council which declare the building unusable until it’s been brought up to a minimum level of safety. If such an order exists, it is far, far beyond the scope of Renew projects to use that building.

What’s It Zoned For?

For more on this, see the Introduction to Planning and Development Law.

When you go into a building there’s a couple of legal things that should be in place allowing you to use it. Somewhere there’ll be a Certificate of Occupancy, usually secured by the property owner, which says the building is legally useable. For some reason, those are often hard to find. But when you say “Does this building have an Existing Use?” someone should be able to say something like “Yes, it’s for retail/office space/warehouse/public assembly” or something. If that’s in place, that’s really all you need to worry about.

Ultimately, what you want is to walk into a building and be told it has an Existing Use that suits the project you want to put into it. For example, say you want to set up a small shop or retail gallery, the building is in decent condition and you ask the property owner either, “What Use category is this?” or “What’s this zoned for?” and they say “It’s zoned for retail.” All you need from there is the keys.

Does It Meet the Requirements for A Class 9B: Places of Public Assembly Use or Place of Public Entertainment zoning regulations?

The hardest spaces to set up are places where you want to host public events – particularly live music, theatre or, depending on your council, regular gallery openings. These all come under the category of Places of Public Assembly or ‘Class 9B’ under the Building Code.

If you’re looking to set up a space for these sorts of functions, look for the following:

-Is the area accessible to those with a disability, particularly those in a wheel chair? Does it have a disability accessible toilet and wheel chair accessible exits? Under the Disability Discrimination Act, it has to if you’re going to host events there. Councils can, and usually do, stop you using a space for public assembly if those things aren’t in place.

-If the building has a floor size of more than fifty square metres, does it have two exits?

-Does it have exit signs, fire extinguishers or a sprinkler system? The first two are relatively easy to install. The last is extremely expensive. The decision as to whether it’s required is made by your local council.

-Is the area zoned for public entertainment? Most areas aren’t. If it’s next to a block of flats or surrounded by houses, it probably isn’t suitable. Council will tell you – or alternately the police and council will get involved when you attract a noise complaint.

-Parking. This is rarer, but occasionally the local council will stop activity because of a lack of parking. Again, that’s entirely at their discretion.

Can You Apply for Exemption as Temporary Use?

Usually there’s an exemption under state law for what’s called ‘Temporary Development’ or ‘Temporary Use’. This basically means that if the building is only being used ‘temporarily’ and there’s no major structural changes or expenses being invested in it, the council has the right to wave the need for large swathes of compliance. This is entirely up to the local council, as is the definition of ‘temporary’. In some places, councils grant ‘temporary’ status to buildings whilst they’re awaiting redevelopment, provided they’re convinced the space can be used safely. In others, there’s a process for applying for temporary development exemption. Other councils don’t do it at all. In many cases, Renew style projects can apply for temporary exemption. But this entirely comes down to the council.

How Manageable is the Risk?

Most Renew ventures use older buildings and don’t necessarily have the time frames or budgets to go through the laborious and costly processes involved in ensuring planning and development compliance. Within reason, the Renew process is about managing the risk of using a space as quickly and efficiently as possible. Generally speaking, planning and development law usually only comes into play when you create a level of disturbance or risk. There are vast areas of grey space within the laws themselves, and even more so within their application.

Accordingly, up to a point, if you are using a rolling access agreement or lease, you are only using a space temporarily and can do so with reasonable legitimacy unless the local council tells you to stop. It is entirely within their power to do this, but frequently if they do notice you they’ll support you as much as they can, assuming they think you’re doing something good for the wider community.

Ultimately, it’s your job to manage that risk – and it’s you who risks getting fined or sued if something goes wrong.

The best way to offset the risk are:

-Don’t sign up to use a building that’s blatantly unsafe.

-Don’t use a space for something it’s not intended for. If you get access to an old corner store surrounded by houses, don’t put on metal gigs.

-Buy a bunch of fire extinguishers and exit signs.

-Be willing to hire an electrician and maybe a handyman to fix any minor issues.

-The major things that get spaces shut down are noise complaints and issues relating to the sale of alcohol. Avoid those things and you’re usually okay.

-If possible, develop a healthy relationship with council’s compliance and planning department. Don’t lie to them or pick fights. It’s their job to be wary, but if you’re trust worthy they can be incredibly useful.