Exploring the high demands for higher education facilities: fire/life safety

The design process for higher education facilities has its own set of challenges and requirements. Engineers discuss the current trends, challenges, and experiences with college and university facility projects regarding fire/life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 19, 2016



Mark Fisher, PE, LEED AP, Principal, AlfaTech, San Jose, Calif.

Scott Foster, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Chicago

Keith Hammelman, PE, Senior Vice President, CannonDesign, Chicago

Tom Hickey, PE, Plant and Building Services Market Leader, Stanley Consultants, Muscatine, Iowa

James Newman, PE, CEM, BEMP, LEED AP BD+C, High Performance Design Team, Leader, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Boston

Jose I. Torres, PE, MBA, Project Manager/Mechanical Engineer, RMF Engineering Inc., Raleigh, N.C.

CSE: Describe any challenging sprinkler systems you recently specified.

Hammelman: On a recent community college project, we were tasked with designing a retrofit sprinkler system for a building being renovated on campus. The building was 2 stories abovegrade and 1 story below, with adjacent facilities of similar height that were already sprinkled. The adjacent buildings, connected to the same campus water service, did not incorporate a fire pump in the design of the system; however, other buildings farther away on campus did. The challenge was in determining whether a fire pump was needed with the available pressure, which at 50 psi was adequate for the sprinkler system. Upon further review, an amendment in the local building code revealed a requirement to provide a standpipe system for any building in which there was space more than 150 ft away from the fire department access. This requirement seemed rather atypical; normally, standpipes are only required for facilities that are a certain height abovegrade. Also atypical was the need to comply with local rather than state code; in this case, however, the college wanted to do so. In any event, a conversation with the local fire marshal received his concurrence with an exception that allowed the standpipe system to be designed with available pressure (nonautomatic), supplemented through a fire department connection by pumper truck when the fire department was onsite. We were able to avoid the fire pump and establish a new standard for the remaining systems to be installed on campus.

Foster: Fire sprinkler systems have been designed for more than 130 years. With that history, it would be easy to assume that all sprinkler system design and installation is a cookie-cutter exercise, but new standards, specifications, and maintenance requirements create unique challenges. A recent project presented a few challenges to sprinkler spacing, with such elements as chilled sails, radiant ceilings, and service strips limiting locations for placement. Multiple areas included a combination of standard and extended-coverage sprinklers to meet NFPA criteria as well as maintain the integrity of architectural features. Another challenge was where odd-shaped “cloud” ceilings were present; close coordination between trades, the AHJ, and the owner helped determine whether coverage was required above and below these ceilings.

Fisher: Our most challenging sprinkler system involved a dual-action dry-pipe system for Evergreen State College’s central server room. The challenge involved coordination among contractors and existing building systems, which was eventually resolved through a joint effort of the design team, various subcontractors, and the construction management team.

CSE: Describe unique security and access control systems you have specified in college/university projects.

Foster: We recently completed a research facility project that required biometric readers and we anticipate more in the future. More schools are updating to campuswide security video and emergency intercoms. We’re seeing campuses with university hospitals going over to single access-control systems.

Fisher: We have worked on several access systems where different occupants need to have access to different parts of the facility at overlapping times. This generally occurs in libraries and student union buildings. This is not so much a technology challenge as it is a logistical problem. It involves close coordination with the various user groups to determine all possible scenarios and develop security zones with readers in appropriate locations, to avoid stranded students or users not able to access the required parts of the facility during off-hours.

CSE: What are the recent changes or updates you are experiencing for mass-notification systems in college/university buildings?

Fisher: Mass notification came into the mainstream during the last code cycle. This has been a challenge to make sure there is proper sound coverage; additional power is required for speakers and getting the programming setup properly. Luckily, the fire alarm industry was able to integrate mass notification pretty seamlessly into existing voice evacuation.

Foster: We are beginning to see higher education clients request that new fire alarm systems are specified with capabilities for mass notification. This seemingly simple request introduces such considerations as the wording identifying the fire alarm devices as well as intelligibility of the audio system.