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Artist Space Guide

Zoning, Code and Permitting

Building Codes Overview

As building and life-safety codes have evolved, older buildings often no longer comply with current building codes. Since older buildings, particularly industrial buildings have qualities attractive to artists such as abundant windows, natural light, high ceilings, and muscular structures, artists often prefer to rehabilitate rather than undertake new construction. Fortunately, Chapter 34 of the Massachusetts Building Code allows latitude for renovations of existing buildings. Sticking to the preexisting use of a space (typically workspace) is treated more leniently than changing to a new use. Installing sprinkler systems can reduce some dimensional and fire protection requirements. Some requirements come into effect only above certain gross building areas or when rehab costs exceed a certain percentage of the property’s value.

Hiring a code consultant is the best way to understand how the code applies to your project. Knowing the code is an art form in itself, and your architect will not understand it fully. Having a code consultant on your team will simplify your development process and help immensely.

The entire building needs to be investigated as a package, not in a piecemeal fashion. Because the code is complex and building inspectors are not trained as lawyers, your code consultant can explain your code interpretation to plan reviewers, building and fire inspectors, engineers, et al.

When questions arise mid-construction about things like ducts passing through walls or sprinklers in closets or existing stairs that are slightly steeper than the current code allows or exposed steel components, etc., the consultant can interpret the regulations on your behalf.

While a code consultant recommended, the information below will help you achieve legal and safe space in accordance with applicable codes.  Because codes vary by jurisdiction the information provided here is general in nature. Specific requirements can typically be obtained on-line from the municipality and state in which your art space resides.

Codes and the Due Diligence Process

Whether you are looking to rent or buy existing space, renovate space, or build new space, there is an established process to follow that will provide quality control and code compliance. This process will differ for new vs. existing buildings, however there are elements in common to both. As you formulate your spatial needs and establish your financing goals the issue of code compliance should be addressed early on. Evaluating any potential space for code compliance may require consultation with an architect or code consultant. However, there are fundamental issues to be aware of which you can assess without professional assistance if your evaluation is still preliminary. These issues are identified below.


Start with the zoning code. This is a set of regulations adopted by the city or town to regulate use and density. Make sure that your proposed activity is allowed in this specific zoning district. Each municipality will have a zoning map dividing the jurisdiction into districts. Each district will have its own set of dimensional and use regulations. You must determine the zoning term(s) that are used for your specific proposed activity(ies). You may have to choose the use description that most closely resembles your proposed activity. Here are some options from the Boston Zoning Code:

  • Art Gallery
  • Art Use
  • Public art, display space
  • Studios, arts
  • Studios, production
  • Artists’ mixed-use
  • Accessory Art Use
  • Accessory cultural uses

Each of these use descriptions is defined in the zoning code. For instance:

Art Use” is defined as “the creation, manufacture, or assemblage of visual art, including two- or three-dimensional works of fine art or craft, or other fine art objects created, manufactured, or assembled for the purpose of sale, display, commission, consignment, or trade by artists and artisans; or classes held for art instruction.”

Arts Studio” is defined as “a studio for professional work or teaching of music, dancing or theatrical arts to students.” 

Artists’ Mixed-Use” is defined as “the use of all or a portion of a Building for both habitation and either Art Use or Art Studio use, or a combination thereof, provided that any portion of a Building devoted to such use shall be (a) occupied by persons certified as artists pursuant to the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s Artist Certification Process, (b) design in accordance with Boston Planning & Development Agency’s standards and guidelines for artists’ mixed-use space, and (c) subject to an agreement for artists’ housing with the Boston Planning & Development Agency.”

The restrictions on Artists’ Mixed-Use imposed by the City of Boston are intended to allow habitation in studio spaces when the artists’ bona fides can be established and design guidelines are enforced. We will see in the next section that “Live/Work Unit” is also defined and regulated by the Massachusetts State Building Code.

There is more to the zoning code than use regulations. For instance, off-street parking is required based on District and use. This will not be a requirement if you are simply moving into existing studio space, as long as the building has a legal occupancy that includes your use. However, if you are changing the use or legalizing an existing use this requirement will apply and could delay your occupancy. If area for required off-street parking is not available on the subject property a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals must be secured.

If you are changing use to “Live/Work” a zoning provision may require a minimum amount of “Usable Open Space” for each dwelling. This is intended for outdoor recreation and cannot include areas used for parking. Zoning also regulates the nature and location of signage, the keeping of farm animals and urban agriculture. Understanding when your use crosses the line between a studio and a manufacturing use could be relevant. While your specific use may not be described in the zoning code you can choose the use that most closely describes yours as the basis for determining your status. Use Tables for each district will describe whether each use is “A” (allowed), “C” (conditional), or “F” (forbidden). Conditional and Forbidden uses can both be allowed if an appeal or special permit process is successful.

Code Compliance in Existing Buildings

The Massachusetts State Building Code is primarily concerned with life safety in the built environment. However, it regulates only new construction, renovation, additions, and changes in use. Except for on-going maintenance of existing building systems, such as exits and mechanical systems, the Building Code is not enforced unless one of these activities is undertaken. And there is no regular process for inspecting art spaces unless they constitute a place of assembly, capable of accommodating 50 or more people. The following items are intended to help you conduct your own code survey:

  • Are there two means of egress from the floor where your art space will be? Be sure to walk both exits until you get to the exterior of the building before checking this box.
  • Are exit doors, including doors into stairs, self-closing and tight-fitting? Do occupants prop these doors open? Because smoke and fire travel most rapidly through vertical shafts including stairs it is essential that stair doors close automatically to protect the opening. Remove and dispose of all door props and ensure that the door is closing properly.
  • Are exits clearly marked with illuminated signs and are there emergency lights in exit access corridors and stairways? These are required to be provided with emergency power to function in the event of power failure.
  • Is the building provided with sprinklers? Have installations blocked sprinkler head discharge, or are objects suspended from sprinkler pipes?
  • Is there an alarm system with notification devices, pull stations at exits, and an annunciator panel at the building entrance for the use of the Fire Department?
  • Is there any exposed wiring visible in hallways, exits, or workspaces? This is a hazard and a code violation requiring remediation.
  • Finally, what other activities are in the building? Does the sculptor in the studio next door use a torch? If so, what fuel source is used and how is this stored? Propane tanks are best stored outside. Is there a woodworking space without dust removal systems? This is an OSHA requirement, and the combustibility of wood dust is a life-safety concern. Is there a system in place for disposal of darkroom chemicals, oil-soaked rags, and other combustibles? Such a system should ensure that these items are removed from the premises daily and stored in non-combustible containers until proper disposal can occur. Careful indoor storage is an option if properly conducted.

Sprinklers and alarm systems may not be installed because they have not been required, which need not be a deal-killer, however their absence should heighten your vigilance regarding safety issues.


Older buildings often present significant challenges to individuals who are disabled. Both the Americans’ with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board regulations (521 CMR) establish requirements for accessibility, although with differing scoping language and enforcement methods. The ADA is Federal Law, enforced by the Department of Justice. The intent of the ADA is to ensure access to public goods and services regardless of physical or mental limitations, and to ensure equal access to job opportunities. The ADA does not regulate housing. 521 CMR does not regulate employee access, although it does include requirements for residential occupancies, including live/work spaces. 521 CMR is enforced by the local building official as part of the permitting process, and variances may be sought at the State Architectural Access Board. The ADA is ultimately the responsibility of the building owner, and the terms of its requirements allow for “equivalent facilitation”, a means to provide services separate from but equal to those available to the able public. If you are a tenant, you may not be responsible for compliance with 521 CMR. However, you should be aware that exhibits, lectures, performances, classes, open houses, and tours all raise the issue of accessibility.


Want to fix up your art space? You may need a permit. Wiring, plumbing, framing, and finishes are all regulated by the Building Code, and therefore require permits and inspections. This includes the construction of individual workspaces in an open floorplate. A change from one Building Code Use Group to another (like from art studio categorized as Use Group B for ‘Business’ to R-2 for residential live/work) will require a permit regardless of whether or not any work is performed. Also, ANY work in a building 35,000 cubic feet or greater will require “construction control”, involving the services of a registered design professional. This means that all drawings submitted for permit must bear the stamp of a registered professional who will take responsibility for code compliance. Only “minor repairs” can be performed without a permit. Such “minor repairs” can include replacing portions of a system (like the tread on a stair) or building element (floorboard, shingle, window sash), painting, and repair of damaged elements.

The highest priority from a code perspective is that egress is adequate, and access preserved. Construction of partial height partitions to create work areas will require documentation that exit access and capacity are compliant, in addition to verification that all materials are appropriately fire-resistant, and no sprinkler head coverage is interrupted.

Maintenance and Inspections

If your art space is one of many, the condition and safety of one space will impact everyone. With the exception of sprinkler and alarm systems, which are required to be inspected quarterly, there are no requirements for regular inspections of art spaces, so ensuring that chemicals are properly stored, trash is removed, combustibles are stored safely, and exits are unobstructed will fall to occupants and owners. A broken automatic door closer or depleted emergency light battery can endanger lives. Be proactive. If your building has mechanical ventilation make sure the filters on the air handlers are changed regularly and that air changes are sufficient for the materials you work with, such as solvents and acrylics. If you rely on operable windows for ventilation be cognizant of your fresh air requirements, even in heating season. Solvent-covered rags should be disposed of daily in a tightly closed container, or they can be aired outside for reuse. Maintenance can be a routine along the lines of cleaning brushes and stretching canvas. Consider it an essential aspect of your craft.

Additional Tips

  • To protect groundwater all paint sludge and rags should be treated as hazardous waste, disposed of at municipal chemical disposal sites.
  • Never suspend anything from a sprinkler pipe or obstruct a sprinkler discharge pattern.
  • Before renting check with the Building Department to ensure the building has a legal occupancy for your intended use, and for the other uses in the building.
  • If you are engaging contractors be sure that they are licensed and that all required permits are secured.


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