Examining higher education facilities: Codes and Standards

As technology advances in every field, the college and university students being prepped for future careers in those fields need the tech they’re learning with to keep up. That presents unique challenges for the engineers working on such structures—specifying advanced systems that satisfy the unique needs of each institution. Here, professionals with experience in the area offer advice on how to tackle such facilities and receive top marks in regard to codes and standards.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 25, 2018


John Holbert, PE, LEED AP Senior Principal/Client Executive, IMEG Corp., Rock Island, Ill.

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

Jason Sylvain, PE, Partner National Higher Education Practice Leader, AKF Group LLC, New York City

Matthew Wiechart, PE, CxA, LEED AP, CEM Principal/Senior Mechanical Engineer, TLC Engineering for Architecture Inc., Orlando, Fla.

CSE: Please explain some of the codes, standards, and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process for these facilities. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of?

Wiechart: TLC uses the building codes in force at the building location. These are typically the International Building Codes (IBC) or the Florida Building Code, which uses the International Mechanical Code (IMC) with revisions. We also design around the adopted NFPA codes and standards. Finally, ASHRAE and IEEE standards are used to maintain a standard level of care. The biggest changes are a result of energy changes that exist in ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2016: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings.

Locke: Most universities/colleges have facility standards that establish systems and materials to be used on their campuses. The International Code Council’s family of codes (especially the energy code) is used in many areas along with the individual state accessibility code. We always reference ASHRAE, NFPA, and NFPA 70-2017: National Electrical Code (NEC) in our designs and review the appropriate sections that relate to each specific area.

Sylvain: The applicable codes and standards depend on the location of the project. The best place to start is with the state building code. Most states are currently using a version of the IBC with state-specific amendments. Chapter 35 of the IBC includes a list of referenced standards. This should be used to determine which edition of industry standards is adopted. For example, NFPA 13-2016: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, NFPA 72-2019: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, NEC for electrical systems, etc. The IMC is generally used for mechanical system design.

CSE: What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

Wiechart: A complete code research by the design team (architects and engineers) allows for design clarity and allows issues to be evaluated with the permitting agency prior to design. No surprises.

Sylvain: Retaining a code consultant’s expertise for renovation and new construction projects is beneficial during the early stages of conceptual designs, throughout the design phases, and beyond-including permitting support, special approvals, and construction administration. Our in-house code-consulting team has a large higher education project portfolio that includes academic buildings, research laboratories, residence halls, campus centers, and large event spaces, such as sporting arenas, gymnasiums, and auditoriums.

Locke: A code search is performed on all projects we work on. We list the code determined in the search in the contract documents. We add ventilation schedules to the drawings, which identify the code requirement and associated designed airflows for easy checking. The code is a minimum, so we try to incorporate a “better-than-code” mentality to achieve that goal-always set the goal above the mark to hit the mark. Standard testing and balancing specifications require final-tested installed capacities to be ±10%, but we take out the (-) and focus on the +10% of design airflow.

CSE: How are codes, standards, or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of colleges and universities?

Holbert: It is making the institutions review their own internal standards and is the beginning for many to think outside of the box for system solutions. However, there are some colleges and universities that have fully embraced energy efficiency and are looking to further push the limits of the codes, standards, and guidelines to be even better.

Wiechart: Most of the higher ed clients we work with have adopted their own sustainability goals, which typically exceed code. Most have a certain level of LEED certification as their aspirant goal, which typically exceeds energy codes.

Sylvain: Many of our higher education clients have had ambitious energy and sustainability requirements for years and tend to be used to and familiar with high energy efficiency goals. As the energy code evolves and pushes toward increasingly more efficient buildings, our clients’ standards, which may have been significantly better than energy code requirements in the past, are easily meeting new advanced energy code-compliance requirements. As a result, we rarely see the changing code regularly affecting higher education building design in a significant way, simply because many higher education clients are used to and familiar with high energy efficiency goals. That said, as the energy code, LEED, and other regulations change, it is causing a re-evaluation of what clients’ standards may be. Requiring certain LEED certification and energy reductions under older versions of LEED and ASHRAE 90.1 has changed the way projects are thought about, resulting in the wide adoption of LEED v4. Projects need to be thought about in a different way, more and different credits need to be pursued to hit the same LEED thresholds with v4 as compared with previous versions. One specific example of this is how LEED v4 (through ASHRAE 62.1-2012: Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality) requires mechanical ventilation in all zones where, in the past, student residences may have met ventilation requirements with operable windows.

CSE: What new code or standard do you feel will change the way such projects are designed, bid out, or built?

Sylvain: Recent changes to the IBC include permission to lock doors on the means-of-egress side of classrooms and offices to protect against intruders. And smoke detection is required in common spaces on residence hall floors (i.e., common corridors, lounges, etc.), where in the past smoke detection was only required within the units.

Wiechart: ASHRAE 90.1 has the greatest impact because the baseline is more stringent. ASHRAE 62.1 for ventilation is ever-changing and has some of the biggest impacts on energy. Controllability of lighting and power outlets requires clarity of design to assure construction success.

CSE: What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing facilities?

Holbert: The biggest challenges when working in existing facilities-that are only getting partially renovated-are to what extent do we need to bring this system or systems up to code, and whether we have money in the budget to cover the entire scope of work. Some other common challenges when working in existing facilities is the existing floor-to-floor height and the condition of the existing building envelope.

Wiechart: Understanding what systems exist and will be kept that do not comply with the current codes and standards is always the most challenging. Early communication with the permitting and building official is essential. Documentation of these decisions is essential as well.

Sylvain: While most existing building codes are more lenient to allow the continued and adaptive use of existing buildings, some jurisdictions have thresholds for requiring upgrades outside of the work area (i.e., accessibility improvements, fire protection systems, etc.). In some cases, colleges and universities have engaged a code consultant during their master planning efforts to identify the needs of the campus. This has allowed the institutions to allocate capital spending dollars for code-required upgrades.

CSE: What are some of the challenges that exist between what the building owner wants, how the building needs to accommodate occupants, and complying with particular codes and standards?

Wiechart: Building officials do not want to accept any liability related to questionable interpretation of codes and design. They will err on the side of caution, which will typically increase costs beyond the budget. The owner typically is balancing tight budgets with complicated programs, so when code officials require additional renovations to bring an existing building up to current codes, compromises must be made.

Sylvain: Our building codes are getting smarter, with code requirements being clarified. Frequent revision cycles incorporate safety measures based on invasive incidents, such as 9/11 and active shooters on campuses. Most building owners want to do what’s right and safe for the occupants of the building and generally don’t push back on life safety requirements.

Holbert: There are many challenges that exist for building owners in complying with particular codes and standards, especially in a retrofit project type. One of the biggest challenges in a retrofit is bringing the existing building/systems up to code within a prescribed budget. Insufficient ventilation systems and inadequate envelope conditions are often overlooked in budgeting.

CSE: What should the communication process be like to ensure that the design of new or existing colleges and universities is code-compliant? Do you find that there isn’t as much communication as there needs to be between all of the groups working on the project?

Holbert: The communication process for a new construction project on campus needs to include all the necessary stakeholders and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) required for the project. This group needs to review and outline the design challenges and/or potential existing code-compliant challenges that may arise during the project. They should work to identify and define the expectations of the project. Once these expectations are defined, continuous communication should occur on a regular basis to keep the team updated on the progress. If it is found that an expectation is in jeopardy of being met on the project, the team should review the situation and revise the expectation as agreed to by the group. It is safe to say that in our industry, there is always room to improve communication. It is extremely important that an open line of communication remain open to allow the management of expectations. There are so many entities involved to completing a project, and strong communication and a strong communication hierarchy is important to keep all levels informed of potential changes in expectations and why they were required to change.

Sylvain: Engaging a code consultant during study and design phases helps to identify the code thresholds for renovations and major code implications of multiple design concepts. Architects and owners appreciate having a code expert onboard during the design phases to bridge the gap between aesthetics, program, and code requirements.

Wiechart: There does need to be communication and coordination pertaining to exit corridors (fire-rated and fire/smoke-rated), fire suppression, and the electrical system. This coordination relates to building safety and typically is the focus of building officials. Other items require less coordination and should be accommodated by the designers as a standard level of care.