Designing safe laboratories and research facilities: Fire and life safety

Engineers working on laboratory and research projects are tasked with balancing state-of-the-art systems, budgetary concerns, occupant safety, sustainable performance, and other factors including fire and life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 21, 2018


Scott A. Bilan, PE, Principal, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.

Matt Edwards, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Mechanical Associate, ME Engineers, Golden, Colo.

Gordon Handziuk, PE, Peng, Vice President, WSP, Atlanta

Rick Hombsch, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Energy and Infrastructure Group, HGA Architects and Engineers, Milwaukee

Kent Locke, PE, NCEES, Associate Principal, Bailey Edward, Fox River Grove, Ill.

Christian Matthews, PE, PMP, CEM, LEED AP, Associate; Client Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

John C. Palasz, PE, HFDP, Mechanical Engineer, Primera Engineers Ltd., Chicago

Aaron Saggars, PE, LEED AP, Core Team Leader, CRB USA, Kansas City, Mo.

Jim Sharpe, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., San Francisco

CSE: 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?

Hombsch: Some laboratory projects will require toxic and flammable gas detection and exhaust systems (typically H-5 labs), hazardous exhaust systems (>25% lower explosive limit), exhaust air scrubbing or containment filtration, classified spaces related to NFPA 70: National Electrical Code (NEC), hazardous piping systems, spill control and containment systems, explosion venting (deflagration venting or explosion prevention), specialty and enhanced sprinkler-density requirements mandated either by code or insurance carriers, and others based on the laboratory type and use. Successfully implementing a highly specialized laboratory design starts with a very detailed code analysis. This involves working directly with the users and client EHS representatives to categorize and characterize the planned hazardous production materials and how they will be stored, handled, processed and packaged, discharged, or removed. These types of laboratories, as required by codes, can also require enhanced reviews with the authority having jurisdiction as well as detailed standard operating procedure and emergency documentation and change tracking.

Handziuk: The most unique and challenging design was the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories lab at Boston University Medical Center. This high-containment lab is fitted with a water-mist system. A water-mist system was selected to limit water discharge to the space and in quantities that allow for decontamination of the fluids through the treatment system without requiring an auxiliary tank. The system is driven by compression pump rather than compressed nitrogen, to prevent overpressurization of the space on discharge. An analysis of flammables, both materials of construction and lab chemicals, was required to ensure the effectiveness of the system. The system is also fitted with industrial-grade high-temperature sensors and a secondary sprinkler system; the temperature sensors and secondary sprinkler system can be monitored and manually controlled from the fire command center. The Boston Fire Department was highly involved in the development system, access routing from emergency management systems, and overall protocols to allow for the most effective emergency response on their part.

CSE: Describe unique security and accesscontrol systems you have specified in such facilities.

Locke: Most spaces require some level of security due to the nature of the experiments and their duration, which is usually achieved with the card-access system.

Hombsch: Systems designed to meet Federal Information Processing Standard Publication 201 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12 have been used on some of our recent projects.

CSE: How have the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with such structures changed over the years? How did these changes impact the overall design process? 

Hombsch: Generally, fire suppression systems have not changed significantly over time.

CSE: What enhanced fire and life safety features need to be considered when designing this type of facility?

Hombsch: Depending on the occupancy type, there may be enhanced sprinkler requirements, early smoke/fire and flammable and toxic gas-detection systems, exhaust scrubbers, separation walls, emergency ventilation system on/off, and purge controls, as well as emergency or standby power.