COVID, sustainability drive college fire, life safety design
Colleges and universities have been sustainability trendsetters over the past several years. COVID-19 has required designers to think differently about fire and life safety systems.
- Kim Cowman, PE, LEED AP, National Director of Engineering, LEO A DALY, Omaha, Nebraska
- Daniel S. Noto, PE, LEED AP, Owner, Noto Consulting Group LLC, Roswell, Georgia
- Coral Pais, PE, BEMP, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, Mechanical Engineer, DLR Group, Cleveland, Ohio
- John M. Rattenbury, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, Cannon Design, Boston
- Luke Richards, PE, Project Engineer, RMF Engineering Inc., Raleigh, North Carolina
- Simon Ubhi, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, Henderson Engineers, Los Angeles
- Toby White, PE, LEED AP, Associate – Boston Fire and life Safety Practice Leader, Arup, Boston
What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire/life safety system design that you’ve encountered for such projects? How have you overcome these challenges?
Toby White: Many new state-of-the-art buildings include atria as part of the aesthetic appeal of the building. Some of these atria have taken on unique shapes that require more advanced fire and smoke modeling to establish smoke management criteria. For space efficiency and cost purposes, we often end up with long, narrow atria with incredibly short smoke reservoirs at the top. Without providing a place for smoke to collect, the smoke exhaust systems must be sized to more rapidly remove smoke. Fundamentally, a good exhaust system also has sufficient makeup air located low within the atrium and the makeup air quantity and speed of introduced makeup air become the main design challenges. Nobody wants to see 500 square feet of makeup air louvers on their main level, so we have to be creative with where this comes from, whether by actuated doors or exterior wall panels that open to provide the required makeup air at a reasonably controlled velocity. From time-to-time some component of the design is out of prescriptive compliance, but can be validated through performance-based fire and smoke modeling to see suitable solutions meeting the intent of the Code.
Simon Ubhi: Special needs for fire alarm notification in animal spaces within labs — often need to eliminate horns/speakers and strobes within the animal housing and workspaces because the noise and light created from these could affect the animals in a way that impacts the research being done. This often requires special approval from the local fire official, but also needs to account for notification of the staff working in these spaces.
Kim Cowman: Appropriate load factor selection can be a concern. We want to make sure the building is designed to allow people to safely evacuate and the number of people expected to be present in the building is used to determine the number and size of exits required. Best practice is to calculate based off the maximum potential occupancy of the building, but choosing the wrong use of a space can have a large impact on this number. Assembly areas where people are close together in desks or at tables and chairs should be calculated at 15 square feet/person, but vocational type classrooms with cooking or shop tables have a larger square feet/person number. Overestimating can have negative impacts on both how many exits or stairs are needed and the number of plumbing fixtures required. Underestimating can mean not enough exiting or fixtures are designed.
How have the trends in fire/life safety changed on such projects?
Simon Ubhi: Very specific controls and limits for the storage and use of hazardous materials are being enforced by local jurisdictions early on in the design and permitting process. Often, at this point, it is unknown what the use of every space will be and designing for flexibility is key.
Toby White: The trend in many campus building projects is flexibility of use and this requires a thoughtful approach to fire and life safety to address multiuse spaces and future program modifications. It really comes down to understanding the Owners desires and long-term possibilities for the building. This will impact your decisions on specifying sprinkler design densities with flexibility in mind or anticipating large assembly uses and providing the appropriate fire alarm notification system. When designing labs, work to optimize the number of and positioning of control areas to provide the greatest flexibility of lab uses including hazardous materials.
What fire, smoke control and security features might you incorporate in these facilities that you wouldn’t see on other projects?
Kim Cowman: If designs for these types of facilities include atriums or other large open areas that span multiple floors, this can require special systems to mitigate smoke accumulation in large, vertical spaces. Mechanical smoke exhaust systems are typically used to exhaust the smoke and keep the area tenable long enough for occupants to evacuate the building.
Toby White: Special detection specific to the hazardous materials being used or stored are often part of lab design. For instance, when dealing with cryogenic CO2, we need CO2 monitoring and low-level mechanical exhaust, since CO2 is heavier than air. Use of cryogenics small to medium spaces where container release could purge the oxygen from a room would require oxygen depletion detection. Each material in use may create unique hazards and you may have multiple means of life safety risk mitigation in place. This isn’t totally unique to labs, but it certainly isn’t something I see every day in others project sectors.
How has the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with college and university projects changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process?
Simon Ubhi: Many campuses now have fire alarm systems that are networked between buildings.
How have changes to codes, BIM and wireless devices/systems impacted fire and life safety system design for these buildings?
Simon Ubhi: Recent code changes for dormitories now require smoke detectors in spaces such as corridors, storage rooms and mechanical rooms. Previously, smoke alarms were only required in the bedrooms. This increases the safety of these buildings because it provides earlier detection and notification for occupants who may be sleeping.
Have recent active shooter incidents had a noticeable impact on the safety concerns and features you’re adding to college and university projects?
Kim Cowman: Something that has changed for fire alarm design because of active shooter incidents has been to no longer provide manual fire alarm pull stations at exit doors from buildings. Per code, you are not necessarily required to have more than one pull station and that can be located near the main fire alarm control panel. One reason for this change stems from the discovery that in one of the more prominent active shootings at Columbine, the shooters had alternate plans to activate the fire alarm system via the pull stations and then fire on people as they exited the building.
Toby White: Active shootings are scenarios that are difficult to design for, much like arson or other scenarios based on malicious activity. Security consultants certainly consider this type of event and have various methods to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of certain scenarios playing out. In the U.S., our codes require the path of the means of egress to be completely unimpeded with very few exceptions. This isn’t always the case in other countries where it may be complete acceptable for a door to unlock upon fire alarm activation. I discourage this approach due to the possibility that occupants may have a reason to escape that is not fire.
Simon Ubhi: While NFPA 3000 deals mostly with policy and procedures surrounding hostile event response, it serves to guide the discussion when working with clients to plan the infrastructure that will support that plan to do everything possible to mitigate risk when seconds count and lives are on the line. Situational awareness, control of access to sensitive spaces and communication are a huge part of that and electronic security assets are a vital tool to facilitate those things.