Check into hotel, motel, resort high-tech designs: electrical/lighting/power and fire/life safety

Hotels, motels, and resorts accommodate thousands of people. Here, engineers explain just how challenging it is to deliver unique design concepts and ensure these structures are in compliance specifically in regards to electrical/lighting/power and fire/life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer May 24, 2017


  • John Barrot, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal, Arup, New York City
  • Kevin Christensen, PE, LEED AP, Vice President/Director of MEP Engineering, Epstein, Chicago
  • Wesley S. Lawson, PE, Senior Associate, Bala Consulting Engineers, King of Prussia, Pa.
  • Steven Mulcahy, Principal Engineer, Southland Engineering, Las Vegas
  • Christine Sauer, PE, Senior Fire Protection Engineer, JENSEN HUGHES, Baltimore

CSE: Describe a recent electrical/power system challenge you encountered when working on a hotel, motel, or resort project.

Mulcahy: In a recent project, the lighting fixtures were “value engineered” by others without consulting the engineering team. The fixtures selected were constructed with extremely cheap power supplies from China, which produced a very high harmonic content on the electrical system—which then required additional engineering to address the harmonic issue. In the end, the cheaper fixtures ended up costing the owner much more than staying with the originally specified fixtures.

CSE: How do you work with the architect, owner, and other project team members to make the electrical/power system both flexible and sustainable at the same time?

Mulcahy: The key is to have design and ownership teams with common sustainability goals. Once the goals have been established, the design and construction teams can use target-value design to deliver the project within budget while achieving the sustainability goals.

CSE: What types of smart grid or microgrid capabilities are owners demanding, and how have you served these needs? Are there any issues unique to these specialty projects?

Mulcahy: Onsite generation has been a part of large resort facilities for a long time. Recently, as the utility rates increase, sustainable sources have been included in the microgrids for projects. The requirements for alternative sustainable-power sources continue to increase. The largest challenge is usually having enough square footage to make PV systems feasible. In a large resort facility, the available roof and ground areas are generally small in comparison with the need for space to approach a net zero project.

Christensen: I do not currently see any significant demand by owners to be tied into utility/private-developer microgrids. Typically, owners will already have an understanding of what the anticipated annual electricity costs will be for their facility, through their discussions with the local electricity provider(s). If these costs do not meet lifecycle cost models for the property, we occasionally find that owners will engage in further discussions with utilities on how to tie into cost-saving systems or get some type of rebates. On rare occasions, our engineers might be asked by the owner to develop lifecycle cost models for onsite power systems (i.e., solar, cogeneration, microturbines, natural gas, biofuel, wind) to determine if producing onsite power would be more cost-effective than purchasing it from the utility. Smart grids are reserved for the utility side of the electrical distribution system and generally do not involve owners directly, other than potentially gathering data on the actual power profile of a facility through the use of smart metering.

CSE: Describe a recent standby, emergency, or backup power system you designed, and its challenges and solutions.

Christensen: The first step is to understand the owner’s burden, whether financial or operational, if the facility or parts of the facility is shut down for any period of time. Usually, the owner has a fairly good idea of what systems they want.  

Mulcahy: In large hospitality projects where the emergency loads exceed the capacity of one generator, it becomes a challenge to meet the 10-second time frame for emergency loads to be online as required by NEC, Article 700. Typically, in larger projects where there are sometimes six or eight generators, multiple generator-paralleling busses must be used to accomplish this. Then, after the emergency loads are transferred, the multiple-generator busses can then be paralleled together to provide additional redundancy.

CSE: Describe a lighting control or addressable lighting project you’ve completed in a hotel, motel, or resort. What were the challenges and solutions?

Mulcahy: Lighting controls within resort facilities are usually challenging. Because they are typically 24-hour facilities, they do not readily lend themselves to lighting-reduction controls. However, there are always options for addressable lighting control within hotel guest rooms, meeting rooms, restaurants, stairwells, office spaces, back-of-house corridors, warehouses, etc., where lighting controls can be used to reduce the energy consumption of the property.

Fire/Life Safety

CSE: What are some of the challenges of fire and life safety system design for hotels, motels, and resorts? How have you overcome these challenges?

Barrot: We often work on hotel and resort projects located outside of the U.S. Navigating a particular country’s code requirements and approvals process can be challenging. Local codes run the gamut from no hotel-specific requirements to very detailed requirements. The U.S. brands tend to have fire/life safety standards that align closely to the ICC and NFPA standards. This can be difficult to resolve when designing for U.S. brands in non-U.S. locations with differing requirements. For example, sprinklers are required for hotels in the U.S. codes and many brand standards, but not in some countries where other measures, such as increased compartmentation and smoke detection, are favored.

Lawson: NFPA has very specific guidelines with regards to the size of each type of space that needs to be sprinklered. If there is a good, open level of discussion and synergy between the owner, architect, and engineer, rooms may be designed to save cost. Specifically, these size constraints relate to bathrooms and closets.

Sauer: On the surface, hotels may appear to be straightforward from a fire and life safety perspective; however, the designs and renovations of hotels are getting more sophisticated, as these facilities are integrated with larger complexes containing retail, entertainment, and recreation components. Buildings that accommodate sleeping guests or serve as venues for events with more than 1,000 people require additional life safety and fire protection features. It may take longer for sleeping guests to wake and get out of the building, and likewise, egress times will increase during events with large occupant loads. Providing compensating features, such as smoke control systems, and requiring quick-response sprinklers and/or emergency communication voice systems are ways to overcome these challenges.

Mulcahy: Managing the increased pressure for these taller systems has been the main challenge. Multiple pressure-reducing zones have been used for this problem.

CSE: Do you see any future changes/requests to building design in regards to fire/life safety systems?

Sauer: I think, in the future, we will start to see more hotels start to implement smart-building technologies, and the industry will start to focus on executing whole-building solutions for information technology, security, and fire alarms. A fully integrated smart-building package may be desirable to owners as a productive and cost-effective solution. As fire alarm systems have evolved over time into sophisticated computer-based systems, they will continue to be part of overall building operations during an emergency event.

Mulcahy: Architectural features have created the highest challenges, such as high ceilings, cloud ceilings, and finishes.

CSE: Describe the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with such structures. Have they changed over the years?

Mulcahy: Costs have increased due to higher-pressure fire pumps and the number of pressure-reducing valves. The cost of maintaining and testing these systems has increased due to code enforcement of testing.

CSE: What unique egress or emergency communication systems have you specified in such facilities?

Sauer: More hotels are moving toward providing emergency voice-communication systems, which can serve as both fire alarm notification and mass notification or emergency broadcasting systems. In the future, we may see smart exit signage in hotels with larger front-of-house spaces including ballrooms, restaurants, clubs/lounges, and similar areas. During emergency situations, these systems could help identify the hazardous area through linked environmental sensors and determine the safest route, and then appropriately illuminate exit signs to guide people out of the building. In ballrooms with more than 1,000-person occupancy, these systems could be very beneficial through the front-of-house space; typically, occupants tend to leave the way they enter.

Mulcahy: Two-way radio communication has become a requirement. Having large concrete-and-steel structures with multiple levels has created a problem concerning keeping emergency personnel in contact with each other.

CSE: In supertall high-rise hotels, what types of areas of refuge, elevator egress, or other solutions have you implemented?

Barrot: Refuge floors are not common in the U.S., but are required in various countries in East Asia and the Middle East for supertall buildings. Occupant-evacuation elevators have become optional in the IBC for buildings taller than 420 ft. The Shard in London is a 1,016-ft-tall building opened in 2012 and includes a Shangri-La Hotel. It has refuge areas and elevators are used for evacuation. The evacuation strategy was optimized with egress modeling using MassMotion.

CSE: In extremely large complexes, such as resort hotels or casino hotels, what unique smoke control or fire suppression systems have you specified? Please describe.

Sauer: In the larger complexes, the architectural design typically includes large, open volumes and monumental staircases within the front of house. This creates a more open and inviting atmosphere for guests, where they enter reception and can view all the meeting floors. These areas would require an atrium smoke-exhaust system. Further, in a lot of high-rises, smoke-exhaust systems are required for all public areas and guest room corridors. This is an added benefit to ensure guests can safely egress. For example, in sleeping occupancies, the guest’s response time may be hindered due to various reasons, so providing the additional system adds safety benefits.

Mulcahy: Deluge systems have used in areas that have very high ceilings. The fire alarm system must be used to activate the systems using flame or smoke detection.

Barrot: Casino hotels typically have large casino floors, often resulting in extended travel distances. For various projects, we have developed fire strategies including smoke control to provide an adequate level of life safety in lieu of prescriptive travel distances. Resort hotels or large mixed-use hotel developments often require creative fire/life safety solutions to address each program type in turn while also providing a cohesive strategy.