Designing efficient K-12 schools: Fire/life safety

In a digital age, children across the U.S. are more technologically advanced than ever—and they require educational facilities that can keep up. Here, engineers with experience working on K-12 schools share views on fire/life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 26, 2018


Maxwell Chien, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Associate, Kohler Ronan, New York City
Chuck Dale-Derks, PE, LEED AP, Principal, McClure Engineering, St. Louis
Evan J. Hammersmith, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CGD, Associate, Mechanical, Karpinski Engineering, Cleveland
Michael Lentz, PE, CPD, HFDP, Director of Operations, Baltimore Office, Setty, Baltimore
Rodney Oathout, PE, LEED AP, CEM, Principal | Energy + Engineering Leader, DLR Group, Overland Park, Kan.
Michael Rader, PE, CEM, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Barton Associates Inc., York, Pa.

CSE: What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire/life safety system design that you’ve encountered for K-12 schools? How have you overcome these challenges?

Dale-Dirks: Designing fire-suppression systems for facilities that include safe rooms (ICC/NSSA Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters (ICC 500) or Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Our approach is to bring the fire main to the safe room and then branch additional zones to the balance of the building below-grade. If ever the line is severed, the system will require valves to be closed to maintain function to the safe room.

Chien: Designing a high-rise K-12 school with an auditorium and emergency egress stairs was certainly one of our challenging educational projects. This project required the provision of complex smoke control, post-fire purge, and stair-pressurization systems to ensure the safety of the students. Most schools also have a kitchen requiring Type 2 hood exhaust systems requiring a fire protection system.

CSE: What types of systems have you put in place to handle natural disasters, such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, etc.?

Oathout: Nearly every K-12 project that we are involved in has a storm-safe area primarily for protection against tornados. FEMA P-361, Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms, and ICC 500 are the widely used standards that define the design criteria for these spaces. The 2015 version of the IBC requires storm-safe areas for nearly all K-12 facilities constructed under that code. A large portion of these design guidelines points to heightened structural design to withstand the high winds associated with a tornadic event. There are also ventilation, lighting, and plumbing requirements that result in specialty design solutions for the engineer.

CSE: Describe unique security and access-control systems you have specified in K-12 schools.

Dale-Dirks: An IP card-access system for every classroom door and entry doors.

CSE: What unique smoke control or fire-suppression systems have you specified for K-12 schools?

Chien: Many schools have stages larger than 1,000 sq ft, requiring smoke control for the theater. In one of our school projects, the theater is located in the cellar and the smoke control system has to extend 10 stories up to be exhausted. Smoke control also brings in the challenge of make-up air, as the area required is extremely large due to the maximum airflow requirements. We employed unused spaces, such as the area below the built-up stage and cavity spaces behind the stage, to provide this make-up air.