The How of an Alternate Method of Design

Let’s face it, most of the projects that you work on will be difficult and challenging. In fact, that is most often the norm. What do you do on that one project? You know, the project where the prescriptive requirements of the codes and standards cannot be met due to any number of reasons. Maybe the building is an old building and the square footages are not working in your favor. Perhaps, there are structural considerations that are making the design or installation impossible. Regardless, if you’re a layout technician, contractor, or a Fire Protection Engineer, you’ve had this project.

So, what do you do? You are faced with the oxymoron of being required to follow the requirements of the code and standards yet there is something that is making that impossible. Luckily, there are provisions for these situations in the various codes and standards. These provisions have gone by many names throughout the years; however, they are commonly known as, “Alternate Method of Design’ or “Alternate Method of Construction.” You will find these provisions in the administration chapters of the codes and standards. Having served as Chief Building Official of a major metropolitan city with a unique built environment that was dated and historical; we used these provisions often. These provisions should be approached with great care and attentiveness.

Approaching and working with an AHJ on an Alternate Method of Design can be frustrating and difficult. However, if you follow the tips below, you will have a high acceptance rate. It will show that you understand your project thoroughly, understand the intent of the code and show that you have a high degree of understanding of the requirements and nuances of the codes and standards. Below you will find the format that was developed and used with success in my municipality. Let’s get into it.

1. Schedule Pre-submittal Meetings: This is probably the most important tip. When you realize that you will be need approval for an Alternate Method of Design, schedule a meeting with the Chief Building Official as soon as possible. In the meeting, give an overview of the scope of work and issues that you are encountering. Also, give your preliminary design solutions for the problems. This will allow the Chief Building Official to communicate their process for submittal of an Alternate Method of Design. Also, it allows the Chief Building Official to provide input on the issues presented and give you an idea of what they will or will not accept.

2. Format for Alternate Method of Design: An Alternate Method of Design should be submitted in letter format to the Chief Building Official as follows:

    • Section 1: Describe the scope of work.
    • Section 2: Describe the issues that you are facing.
    • Section 3: What are the code requirements for your issue.
    • Section 4: Why you cannot meet the requirements of the code or standard.
    • Section 5: Provide the Alternate Method of Design that includes drawings, reports, testing, evaluations and any and all evidence that supports your Alternate Method of Design.
    • Section 6: Describe how your Alternate Method of Design meets the intent of the code and standard requirements.

3. Submit the Alternate Method of Design: As a Chief Building Official, I wanted to have to all Alternate Methods of Design approved before submittal. This would allow the plan review stage to meet our service level goals within the department. That means you get a permit quicker! The Chief Building Official should respond in writing with an approval or rejection of your Alternate Method of Design. If you’ve have had your pre-submittal meetings, getting a rejection will be rare. Often, you will be approved or approved with conditions. Include the approval along with your Alternate Method of Design into your final submittal documents.


Getting an approval for an Alternate Method of Design does not have to be difficult or frustrating. The project is challenging enough. If you follow the tips above and remain in contact with the Chief Building Official along the way, you will have a much smoother submittal and approval process. Alternate Methods of Design are not “scary.” They are necessity and a reality of the design process.