Constructing college, university buildings wisely: Codes and standards

Engineering mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and fire protection systems in colleges and universities requires designers to look toward the future of postsecondary education, and consider all aspects of a building and its occupants. Codes, standards, and other guidelines direct the design of these buildings and campuses.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 23, 2015


Aravind Batra, PE, LC, LEED AP, Principal, P2S Engineering Inc., Long Beach, Calif.

Craig Buck, PE, LEED AP, Associate, RMF Engineering, Charleston, S.C.

Jeffrey R. Crawford, PE, LEED AP, CCS, Vice President, Director of Higher Education & Research Market, Ross & Baruzzini Inc., St. Louis

Andre M. Hebert, PE, BEMP, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, Senior Mechanical Engineer, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Boston

Sergiu Pelau, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Syska Hennessy Group, New York City

Scott Robbins, PE, CEM, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Vice President, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Boston

CSE: Please explain some of the codes, standards, and guidelines you use as a guide when designing college/university facilities.

Buck: Some of the codes and standards we use when designing college/university facilities include the International Building Codes and ASHRAE standards. But in addition to those required codes and standards, many of the universities that we work with also have their own campus design standards that we must consult and consider when designing for their facilities. These include specific manufacturers or performance requirements that they want to have across their campus.

Batra: The codes that we use are the California Title 24 codes (Part 1 through 12) and the associated NFPA codes that are referenced in these codes. The standards and guidelines that we use include Labs 21, CHPS guidelines, ASHRAE design guidelines, and New Buildings Institute guidelines.

Robbins: We use all applicable codes and standards required by that state and city.

CSE: How have International Building Code, NFPA, ASHRAE, and other codes affected your work on college/university projects? What are some positive/negative aspects of these guides?

Crawford: All of these documents have evolved over the years to promote a higher level of safety, better indoor environmental quality, and much better energy performance from our buildings and building systems, all of which is good for our college/university populations. One could say a negative result is that college/university buildings now cost more to build, but I would argue that the improved health and well-being of the building occupants and significantly lower operating costs make this a very good investment. Codes are very important to our design. Unfortunately, they are not always current with new technologies, which can cause confusion. We have found that writing thoughtful variances are well-received by building officials.

Batra: The positive aspects of these codes/guides are that they have promoted enhanced life safety, enhanced user comfort, highly efficient systems, and seismically safe facilities. The negative aspects of these guides are that they are not well-coordinated and efforts need to be undertaken to coordinate the various codes/guides so that they do provide consistent requirements.

Buck: Integration of campus standards with the legally required codes and standards has proven to be problematic because they are, at times, contradictory. Educating owners about what is, and is not, acceptable based on the legally required codes can be difficult because it may go against something they have chosen to focus on as a standard across their campus. Many times we are forced to find a compromise that meets the code requirements but also addresses the owner’s concerns.

Pelau: The challenge of all these codes is staying informed of the changes they go through as most of them get updated every few years.

CSE: Meeting codes/standards is often one of the biggest challenges engineers face. What challenges have you recently overcome in a particular college/university project?

Buck: The Clemson Watt Family Innovation Center required the addition of a smoke-exhaust system as part of the design. The integration of this system with the architecture of the building, and incorporating the necessary smoke-control sequences to all the equipment within the building, proved to be an interesting challenge. Given the large amount of exhaust required for the system to operate, the ability to introduce the necessary amount of make-up air, when the building air handlers are not designed to operate at a 100% outside air condition, is difficult. We were able to provide the required make-up air by installing automatic door openers on the exterior doors so that those doors open prior to the smoke-exhaust fan starting.

Robbins: We recently experienced a challenge regarding the installation of rated ductwork horizontally from a control zone to a shaft. There are several options and manufactured products. The testing requirements in the code and manufacturers’ information are not where they need to be.

Batra: The biggest challenges we face are undertaking retrofit of existing building systems with limited budgets and deciding how far we need to implement the current codes to bring the building or facility to meet current codes. The recent challenge we addressed was the upgrade of existing fire/life safety requirements in a facility as part of an HVAC-upgrade project.

CSE: What international codes pose challenges as you design college/university buildings or campuses outside the United States?

Batra: We are not involved in designing facilities outside of the United States. We have conducted a peer review of projects in Europe.