Occupancy Ratings: What You Need to Know

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In a previous blog, we discussed how all steel buildings must be custom engineered taking into consideration the specific building codes and loads for their specific site location. We talked about the importance of understanding the specific Codes and Loads in the design of a metal building system.

Just as there are differences in structural design that correspond to different environmental conditions, there are also differences in design that relate directly to occupancy rating.

What Are Human Occupancy Ratings?

As the name implies, the occupancy rating is a designation given to a structure based on the number of human beings that the structure’s application would typically require or dictate. In general, the more people a building needs to protect, the stronger the building is required to be.

Buildings can fall into one of four occupancy rating categories:

  • Low Human Occupancy
  • Normal Human Occupancy
  • High/Substantial Human Occupancy
  • Post-Disaster/Essential

The majority of structures are designated as Normal Human Occupancy by the permit office. This is the catch-basin for all structures that do not fit into any of the other categories. Therefore, it is easier to distinguish what is NOT Normal Human Occupancy to understand what that category actually includes. With that said, let’s examine the different human occupancy rating categories and what each requires.

Low Human Occupancy

Buildings designated as Low Human Occupancy are strictly defined as those which have an occupant load of not more than one person per 431 square feet of floor area during normal use.

Examples of Low Human Occupancy buildings include agricultural structures, storage and equipment buildings. Each case is carefully evaluated before changing the occupancy rating.

low human occupancy buildings
Horse arenas and vehicle (boat) storage are examples of low human occupancy buildings.
  • Produce storage and packing facilities
  • Livestock and poultry housing
  • Equipment and machinery storage
  • Milking and dairy centres
  • Manure storage
  • Feed preparation facilities
  • Grain bins and silos
  • Farm workshops, farm rental centres
  • Horse arenas, riding, exercise and training facilities
  • Greenhouse and grow-op facilities

High Human Occupancy

Buildings designated as High Human Occupancy are those that are likely to be used as post-disaster shelters but whose primary use is characterized by a dense human attendance.

Examples of structures that are typically designated as High Human Occupancy include:

  • Elementary, middle or secondary schools
  • Universities and colleges
  • Auditoriums and stadiums
  • Places of worship; churches, mosques, etc.
  • Community centres
  • Manufacturing and storage facilities containing toxic, explosive, or other hazardous substances in sufficient quantities to be dangerous to the public if released
high human occupancy building
Restaurants, like the one built by Norsteel here, are examples of high human occupancy buildings.


The Post-Disaster designation is given to buildings which are essential to the provision of services in the event of a disaster. As you might expect, this designation carries with it the most intensive construction requirements.

post-disaster buildings
Fire stations and emergency vehicle storage like the one pictured here are examples of post-disaster buildings.

Examples of structures that are typically designated as Post-Disaster Buildings include:

  • Hospitals, emergency treatment facilities, and blood banks
  • Telephone exchanges
  • Power generating stations and electrical substations
  • Control centres for air, land, and marine transportation
  • Public water treatment and storage facilities, and pumping stations
  • Sewage treatment facilities
  • Buildings with critical national defense functions
  • Emergency response facilities
  • Fire, rescue, and police stations, and housing for vehicles, aircraft, or boats used for such purposes
  • Communications facilities, including radio and television stations

Occupancy Ratings and Norsteel

At Norsteel, we design according to your specific project’s needs and functionality requirements. So, if your building’s function requires a higher or lower human occupancy rating, this is an important discussion that you should have with your building consultant. Determining the proper occupancy rating for your building will have a direct influence on the integrity of your engineered structure and it has an impact on the cost.

In general, more people = more steel = more cost.

At Norsteel, unless you tell us otherwise, we will always default to designing your structure with a Normal Human Occupancy rating. Not all metal building providers default in this way. Some design using a Low Human Occupancy Ratings (category 1). This is important to consider when you are comparing your quotes. Remember that a change in a structure’s occupancy rating will change its strength as well as its cost. So be mindful.

In the end, it is the permit office that will determine the essential rating for your structure, so it is important for you to understand where your building sits on the scale. This way, you can make an informed decision on the rating of your structure from the very beginning of the design process.

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