Best practices for designing government buildings using codes and standards

Learn how to specify systems for government and military buildings by referencing the correct codes and standards

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 30, 2020


  • Chris Ankeny, PE, LC, LEED AP BD+C, Associate/Senior Electrical Engineer, Clark Nexsen, Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Mark Chrisman, PhD, PE, Health Care Practice Director/Vice President, Henderson Engineers, Kansas City, Mo.
  • Randall Ehret, PE, Technical Director | Electrical, ESD, Chicago
  • Todd Garing, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice President, Mueller Associates Inc., Linthicum, Md.
  • Rob Jordan, PE, FPE, LEED AP, Mechanical Department Manager, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City,
  • Julene May, PE, PMP, Chief, F-35 Beddown Program Management Office, Stanley Consultants Inc., Eielson AFB, Alaska
  • Jon Sajdak, PE, Associate Fire Protection Engineer, Page, Austin, Tex.
  • Troy Windom, Automation Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

Please explain some of the codes, standards and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of? Include details about General Services Administration projects.

Jon Sajdak: The military, federal government and state government departments have their own set of design guidelines that reference NFPA, IBC and other common codes and standards. For instance, the Department of Defense (DoD) uses the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC), the Department of State (DoS) uses the Overseas Building Operations (OBO) Design Guidelines and the General Services Administration (General Services Administration) uses the Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (PBS-P100). From a fire protection engineering perspective, UFC 3-600-1 is used on each DoD project. It includes specific criteria and additional references for each fire protection/life safety related system. The OBO design guidelines include amendments to the International Building Code (IBC) and International Fire Code (IFC). Lastly, the PBS-P100 standards for the General Services Administration include requirements that take precedence over NFPA and IBC requirements.

Chris Ankeny: The Whole Building Design Guide has the majority of the reference documents for government projects. I create a folder and place the applicable Codes and References including the latest UFC’s and other design requirements as referenced in the Scope of Work into the project directory. Each project location and user group usually has specific document reference they need to comply with as well, so including all those in a single folder helps the design team understand our project codes and standards requirement.

Rob Jordan: When working on MEP design for government, federal and military projects, the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) are the primary codes and standards that must be followed. UFC documents provide planning, design, construction, sustainment, restoration and modernization criteria. Consulting engineers should be very familiar with core UFCs, including UFC 1-200-02 High Performance and Sustainable Building Requirements; UFC 3-410-01 Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning Systems; UFC 3-420-01 Plumbing Systems; UFC 3-501-01 Electrical Engineering; UFC 3-600-01 Fire Protection Engineering for Facilities; and UFC 4-010-01 DOD Minimum Antiterrorism Standards for Buildings. The Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (P-100) standard contains policy and technical criteria to be used in the programming, design and documentation of General Services Administration buildings.

Troy Windom: For DOD sites specifically, I would say designers need to be very familiar with UFC 4-010—06 C1, the various NIST 800 chapters and UFGS 25 05 11 and how they impact the design of what is getting designed.

Julene May: Unified Facility Criteria, Unified Facility Guide Specifications, various Air Force Design Guides and most important the local base design guides. I can’t stress enough the need to understand and follow the local base design guides, especially in unique environments such as the sub-arctic climates. Design firms can help the user, by ensuring that they understand these guides and incorporate them during the request for proposal development and then during the actual design process.

Mark Chrisman: Generally, within the federal sector, the better question to ask is: which codes, standards and guidelines do not apply? General Services Administration projects are likely the most straightforward of the governmental organizations. All International Codes published by the International Code Council are used as well as NFPA 101 — Life Safety Code published by the National Fire Protection Association. While the International Building and Fire Codes are generally aligned with NFPA 101, there are some conflicting and duplicative criteria that require discussion during design. Many of the General Services Administration projects we get involved with include minor tenant renovations in buildings that are partially protected with sprinklers, have a partial fire alarm system and/or issues with means of egress. It’s critical to take a holistic look at all of the passive and active safety features in the entire building (not just the scope of work), as well as any approved compensatory measures or alternate means and methods when working on these remodels and renovations. There have been several instances where we had to address something in another part of the building (not in the scope of work) to show compliance in an area. I would also recommend folks working on renovations get familiar with NFPA 241, which is the standard for “Safeguarding Construction, Alternation and Demolition Operations.” This is applicable on most public sector projects and offers guidance for what to do during construction, renovations and demolition.

What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

Rob Jordan: Consultants should regularly review the latest version of the Unified Facility Criteria (UFC) documents, as they are updated frequently and the revisions can have significant impacts to the systems analyzed in a design. Also, understanding the different requirements that apply to different branches of the military is key. Don’t let the title “Unified” be deceiving—the Army, Navy and Air Force each have unique requirements. It is also important to carefully review any design standards for the specific installation, base, USACE district, Army Garrison, NAVAL Station, etc.

Chris Ankeny: We use an internally developed QC checklist as a reference throughout the project design. It serves as a reminder to check specific codes and standards, many of which have been updated based on lessons learned.

Randall Ehret: There is always a project budget balance between meeting code/standards and exceeding them. We find it best to have frank conversations early to determine where the project priorities truly lie. Once that has been determined, it becomes much easier to set up a series of check and balances to maintain focus on implementing the agreed approach.

Jon Sajdak: Early on in the design process, it is critical to establish a list of applicable codes and criteria that will be used throughout the project. This list should also identify the appropriate edition of each code and criteria as well. A great habit to start at the beginning of each project is to establish a code summary analysis or matrix with all applicable codes and standards. This can be a tool used by each discipline and made into one collaborative document. As the design process progresses, it is a great document to reference if a design question or code conflict arises. This is particularly important on projects that are constructed outside of the U.S., as the host nation requirements need to also be included in the code comparison matrix to verify the most stringent criteria is met.

Mark Chrisman: A best practice is to work with a fire protection engineer familiar with the applicable codes, standards and criteria if you don’t have one on your team. These experts are involved with code compliance in some way, shape or form with almost every system in a building and can often assist with interpretations and/or guide a discussion with an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). They also often run into obscure standards more often than other design disciplines. 

How are codes, standards or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such projects?

Rob Jordan: To comply with UFC 1-200-02, we perform a whole building energy analysis to show the proposed building design has an energy savings of 30% over the ASHRAE 90.1 Appendix G baseline. It can sometimes be challenging to meet this 30% requirement, especially for projects with high process loads such as data centers, laboratories, semi-conductor fabrication or flight simulators. Creative solutions are required to meet the baselines set by these standards. We also perform a 40-year life cycle analysis, which compares our design to at least three systems to prove which system is the most economical.

Chris Ankeny: The energy codes are beginning to change the way we design electrical systems, specifically the controllability and metering of systems within the building. For certain buildings now it makes more sense to break out the distribution systems based on the types of loads they will be feeding. For larger projects this is fairly common, but we are seeing it more now on small to medium size projects. More equipment affects cost and space requirements, so figuring out how to meet the energy requirements is a concept design level effort.

Julene May: Energy efficiency is impacting the design of military construction projects by creating a perceived initial higher cost of construction, but long-term energy costs are lower. Greater understanding of the higher initial costs needs to be understood by designers so that they may provide accurate cost estimates of construction to the government so that adequate funds can be secured.

What new or updated code or standard do you feel will change the way such projects are designed, bid out or built?

Chris Ankeny: It seems like each project there is a decision early on whether to follow the IECC or the ASHRAE 90.1 compliance paths. There are a few distinct differences between the documents that will change a discipline’s design approach.

Jon Sajdak: The 2018 edition of NFPA 101 included key updates to the health care chapter of the code. One particular example is the maximum allowable smoke compartment area being increased from 22,500 ft2 to 40,000 ft2. From a fire protection perspective, this impacts the sprinkler system and fire alarm system since the zoning of these systems are required to be coordinated with the smoke compartment boundaries per NFPA 99 and UFC 4-510-01. This affects the bidding and cost per system in most conditions because the number of control valve assemblies and fire alarm panels/circuits within the building can be decreased. It shall also be noted that other MEP disciplines are affected by this, as electrical and mechanical systems have similar requirements to align with the smoke compartment boundaries.

What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing buildings?

Jon Sajdak: One of the greatest challenges has been working with existing buildings that have been ‘grandfathered in’ — especially regarding the Life Safety Code (NFPA 101). This is particularly common with historical buildings and older hospitals. When renovations or modifications are made to these facilities, criteria such as means of egress requirements, fire resistance ratings of building components and vertical opening requirements may not be met. Frequently, an alternative approach and early discussions with the AHJ is required. Using NFPA 101A (Guide on Alternative Approach to Life Safety) and performance-based design are two possible tools to help overcome these challenges.

Todd Garing: Existing buildings inherently have more constraints than new buildings and it is critical to do detailed field survey (including laser scanning), review existing documents and meet with facilities and users to determine the opportunities

Mark Chrisman: Renovations in existing buildings are almost always a challenge for code compliance. We’re often involved in minor renovations that have limited scope, tight construction budgets and a quick schedule when we run into an overall building compliance issue that may have significant cost and schedule implications. We try to identify these issues early and have discussions with the building owner, authority having jurisdiction and design team. The hope is to discuss the risk for the project and overall building and occupants and put together a plan to address the current project scope and any potential other projects, waivers and/or equivalencies that may be needed. Specifically, in public projects, there are often many individuals involved in this process and it requires additional time to come to a consensus.

Julene May: DoD requires upgrades to all current standards if a renovation project exceeds 50% of the replacement value of the facility, which is a significant challenge. Designers and users must adequately define scopes of work, otherwise scope creep during construction can cause delays while the government works to acquire the additional funds to continue the work. In addition, design firms must understand the current condition of the facility, the design codes it was built to and/or renovated to last, otherwise the owner and construction contractor will be in a situation that is reactionary which increases risk.

Randall Ehret: Where does our scope of services stop and start when looking at existing Code deficiencies? What issues are directly impacted by our project scope and which issues are ancillary?

Again, an early determination and discussion of the issues and how they impact scope, schedule and budget are necessary to keep the project focused and successful.

Chris Ankeny: Equipment and workspace clearance issues are common for work in existing buildings. We also perform Veterans Affairs Hospital electrical coordination studies and the electrical distribution system architecture tends to require near full distribution replacement of NEC 700 and 701 systems to meet separation of systems and Selective Coordination requirements. Being able to separate out the distribution branches into their respective systems and finding the physical space in the existing facility to do so, is one of the biggest challenges we have working in existing facilities.

What are some of the challenges that exist between government requirements, how the building needs to accommodate occupants and complying with particular codes and standards?

Chris Ankeny: Most of the government projects we work on do not fall under the jurisdiction of the location they are at (CONUS), but it is always better to ask to be sure. That being said, some do, specifically out of country (OCONUS) projects where host nation code compliance is required.

What codes or guidelines have you used to enhance the security on such a project? Example: NFPA 3000: Standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response.

Chris Ankeny: Recently, cybersecurity requirements have been our biggest question for government clients. To my knowledge we haven’t implemented UL2900 into our specifications yet, but I am interested in seeing what affect that makes on manufacturer’s equipment needing to comply with those prescription cybersecurity requirements.