Designing flexible, safe labs: Fire and life safety

Safety, budget and flexibility are key factors when designing laboratory and research space

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 23, 2020


  • Jennifer DiMambro, CEng, MIMechE, MCIBSE, Principal/Americas Science, Industry & Technology Business Leader, Ove Arup & Partners, PC, New York City
  • Adam Fry, PE, Project Manager, Associate, Mueller Associates Inc., Linthicum, Md.
  • Paul Harry, PE, LEED AP, Senior Project Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.
  • Jared Machala, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, WSP, Houston

How has the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with laboratory and research facility projects changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process?

Adam Fry: When it comes to life safety systems that include fire protection/suppression and detector systems, I would hope costs wouldn’t override protecting lives. Different types of systems are available for use in all building types regardless of the complexity or type of building but protecting lives is most important when deciding on the type of system that should be provided to protect people, equipment and buildings.

How have the trends in fire/life safety changed in laboratory and research facilities?

Adam Fry: Automatic sprinkler systems are generally the same today, other than newer designs of some sprinkler heads that can be used in lab/research spaces. If there are concerns with water discharging into a lab space, there are specialty fire suppression systems that can be provided such as foam systems, dry chemical, carbon dioxide, water mist systems, etc.

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?

Jared Machala: In several of the labs we have recently designed there has been a concern about containing sprinkler water if a sprinkler head should discharge. These labs are concerned about what might be contained in the sprinkler water after a fire event and require the ability to test and decontaminate the water before being discharge to the sanitary sewer. To meet this requirement, we have designed a floor and trench drain system that is piped to holding tanks that can hold a specified amount of water representative of a sprinkler event in the laboratory. The water can be tested in these holding tanks to ensure there is no danger to the surrounding community before being discharged to the sewer.

Paul Harry: Lack of vertical shaft space is common in older buildings and has been handled by cutting new shafts within the building or building new shafts along the exterior of the building. Exterior shafts can greatly benefit the phasing and minimize disruptions within the existing building. Independent shafts are required from each floor or control zone to the roof or penthouse with fire or smoke dampers in the ductwork.

Adam Fry: When required by the International Building Code, automatic wet pipe sprinkler systems are provided within most types of labs/research buildings per NFPA 13, 14, 45, the International Fire Code and/or the local authority having jurisdiction. Depending on the type of hazard occupancy classification for lab/research spaces, sprinkler design densities can be increased to help distribute larger amounts of water to help control fires until the fire department arrives on-site. Depending on what type of specialty gases are used within a space, storage cabinets that contain a specialty gas may require sprinkler protection as well as the lab space containing the storage cabinet. To overcome these challenges, Mueller works with building code officials, fire marshals, insurance underwriters, etc. to provide the correct fire suppression system(s).

What fire, smoke control and security features might you incorporate in these facilities that you wouldn’t see on other projects?

Jared Machala: We typically use double or single interlock preaction systems in laboratory facilities. These types of systems give the building occupants the opportunity to put out the fire before sprinkler discharge, which can cause a great deal of damage to the facility and the equipment contained within.

Adam Fry: When providing fire protection for a lab/research space/building that would probably contain a higher hazard occupancy classification, the use of specialty fire protection systems would likely be used more often than an academic/classroom type building that would use automatic sprinkler systems.

Describe a project in which you helped a pharmaceutical company or laboratory with COVID-19 research or vaccination research.

Jennifer DiMambro: We have been using our in-house MassMotion software to help clients plan their back-to-work strategies — managing building entries, elevators and desk layouts. As part of this work we have also been using our expertise in this space to look at improving COVID-19 testing strategies and worked with SITU to refine their design, as well as working with clients directly to validate their testing strategies.

Jared Machala: I have worked on three recent projects that have or will have COVID-19 research underway. The first is a BSL-3 laboratory and vivarium at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. The project was completed in the fall 2019 and was one of the first facilities to commence COVID-19 research. The second completed facility is the Global Health Research Campus at Texas A&M University. The BSL-3 portion of the project was completed in early 2020 and has since begun COVID-19 research. The third facility that will handle COVID-19 and related research is the Emerging Viral Threat laboratory at Louisiana State University Health in Shreveport, La. This facility will be a BSL-3 laboratory and vivarium and will be an addition to a facility, which was already in the design phase.