Designing higher education facilities: Fire and life safety

The world is getting more high-tech, and the colleges and universities preparing students to work in an increasingly advanced environment must keep pace. Emergency communication and mass notification systems are key elements of the fire and life safety systems.


David P. Callan, PE, Vice President, McGuire Engineering, ChicagoMichael Chow, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, Member/Owner, Metro CD Engineering, LLC Powell, OhioEssi Najafi, FE, Principal, Global Engineering Solutions, Bethesda, Md.Mike Walters, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Confluenc, Madison, Wis.


  • David P. Callan, PE, Vice President, McGuire Engineering, Chicago
  • Michael Chow, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, Member/Owner, Metro CD Engineering, LLC Powell, Ohio
  • Essi Najafi, FE, Principal, Global Engineering Solutions, Bethesda, Md.
  • Mike Walters, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Confluenc, Madison, Wis.

Modern college and university projects typically have advanced research facilities, such as the 160,000-sq-ft New Physical Sciences Complex at the University of Maryland in College Park. The project's first phase includes specialized laboratory spaces, designed with strict criteria for vibration-sensitive and electromagnetic-interference control. Courtesy: Global Engineering Solutions CSE: What unique fire suppression or life safety systems have you specified or designed in a college or university?

One institution we worked with had a large data center. We designed a cross-zoned preaction sprinkler system that incorporates a continuous air sampling very early smoke detection apparatus (VESDA) fire detection system. Similarly, a second client had a new three-story underground structure that was to be used for rare book and document storage. This structure required a separate automatic dry-pipe sprinkler system for each floor with a complete combination smoke and heat detection system.

CSE: How have the costs and complexity of fire protection systems changed in recent years?

The costs of the fire suppression systems have kept pace with inflation. The complexity of the fire suppression systems has not really changed over the years, but the technologies of the system components have improved drastically in recent years.

CSE: What type of unique smoke control solutions have you designed in these buildings? What were the challenges/solutions?

One project included a six-story atrium with the bottom two floors open to each other and the top four floors enclosed. The design of the atrium smoke control system had some unique challenges in that we required adjudication from the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) with respect to local code and 2006 IBC, which adopts NFPA 92B: Standard for Smoke Management Systems in Malls. Atria, and Large Spaces. The design of the atrium smoke control system included a steady state axisymmetric plume analysis using a certain value for the heat release rate of the design fire. The terminology used in the code analysis implied to use a certain heat release rate unless a rational analysis is performed by the registered design professional and approved by the fire code official, as well as the analysis shall make use of best available data from approved sources and shall not be based on excessively stringent limitations of combustible material. To reinforce our analysis, we consulted with the author of ASHRAE supported data in "Principles of Smoke Management" to ascertain the various fuel commodities for construction/material, including the furniture layout in the atrium lobby, and consequently addressed the heat release rate for a manageable atrium smoke control system based on a credible worst-case fire scenario.

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