Fire and life safety design considerations for office buildings

Understand the unique design considerations within office buildings

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer February 21, 2024
Open work spaces like this one are easily adaptable in the age of hybrid work environments. Courtesy: HDR

Office building insights

  • Paying early attention to legacy systems and addressing code violations is crucial to ensure occupant safety during major alterations.
  • The integration of sustainable features like decarbonization strategies and energy recovery technology in office buildings reflects a growing demand for efficient and environmentally conscious design solutions.

Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology


  • Mark J. Richter Sr., PE, LEED AP, Client development leader, Principal, HDR Inc., New York
  • Peter Syntax, PE, LEED AP, MEP Practice Lead, Kimley-Horn, Phoenix
  • Mark Walsh-Cooke, PE, Principal, Americas east property business leader, Arup, Boston

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?

Mark J. Richter: Life safety should always take precedence. Major challenges within existing buildings include fire and life safety issues that will undergo a major alteration. For example, interfacing with the existing building’s legacy fire alarm systems. Other issues may include spare and available digital and analog input/output at data gathering panels (DGP), locations of DGPs in proximity to alteration, identifying and addressing existing system code violations and fire alarm system deficiencies. Designers should pay early attention to existing building life safety systems to prioritize safety. In addition, sprinkler fire reserve capacity and proper sprinkler coverages need to be evaluated carefully.

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

Mark J. Richter:  I would like to see smoke exhaust systems for segregated public assembly spaces on multi-tenanted floors incorporated. Multi-tenanted corporate office floors require attention to smoke and fire migration, egress requirements and fire suppression design.

What are the challenges specific to fire protection in high-rise office buildings, and how do you address them when designing fire safety systems for such structures?

Mark J. Richter: Fire life safety and fire protection are critical systems within high-rise buildings. Occupant safety, whether it be remain in place or egress evacuation during a fire event is paramount. Both fire alarm and sprinkler systems play an important role. For fire protection systems, zoned sprinkler systems are spaced at a maximum 300 feet overall system heights with both primary and secondary water sources required to serve each zone. Secondary on-site water source storage requirements can result in significant area planning and coordination on various floors within the building.

How has the integration of fire/life safety systems with other building systems changed?

Mark J. Richter: Coordination with local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) on fire/life safety designs in specific areas must be clearly understood and performed. These requirements will either supersede or exceed the requirements of some prevailing codes and standards for a project. It is necessary for the design professionals to understand the various code compliant requirements associated with every project and the local AHJ.

Figure 1: Open work spaces like this one are easily adaptable in the age of hybrid work environments. Courtesy: HDR

Figure 1: Open work spaces like this one are easily adaptable in the age of hybrid work environments. Courtesy: HDR

Describe a project in which electric vehicle charging stations were included. What were the challenges and solutions on this project?

Mark J. Richter: We collaborate with numerous states, municipalities and fleet service organizations to modernize their vehicle fleets in the overarching conversion to electrification or alternate fuels. One crucial consideration in those projects is the preparation of cost models that account for operating and charging. This requires geographic information system-based modeling tools to optimize energy consumption and fleet operations, remain mindful of infrastructure need and work toward Title VI environmental compliance. Models must be informed by local terrains, climate, passenger loading and revenue/non-revenue miles.

What unusual systems or features are owners requesting to make their office facilities more efficient?

Mark J. Richter: Owners are seeking to update their building performance standards and improve decarbonization strategies. In the New York City area, local laws are driving compliance through regulation that both reduces building energy usage and plans for asset decarbonization. This involves an ASHRAE level audit to identify annualized baseline utility energy consumption and cost, as well as the planning and implementation of decarbonization activities. Both planning and designing for compliance require consultants to be adept in identifying operational and energy consumption inefficiencies and effective mitigation measures to help upgrade these systems.

What types of sustainable features or concerns might you encounter for office buildings that you wouldn’t on other projects?

Mark J. Richter: As owners begin to migrate from on-site fossil-fuel based building equipment to on-site electric and/or alternative fuel sources, overall consumption is reduced, but energy costs may not follow suit. As part of the overall regional and national electrification, numerous factors will impact utility rates. These factors need to be considered as building owners address decarbonization plans working towards net zero by 2050. For short and midterm goals, owners may look for opportunities to reduce utility consumption using on-site energy generation and management systems.

Large electric consumers, like large office buildings, should consider systems such as on-site combined heat power/cogeneration, microgrids or thermal and electric energy storage to trade off utility penalties associated with both demand and construction. Typically, these systems pose a large capital expenditure and must be carefully considered to meet regulatory compliances, and should be optimally sized for lean operation and cost-effectiveness. As such, historical understanding of how energy is being used annually needs to be modeled.

Additionally, various local, state and federal energy programs support design, construction and equipment procurement costs to offset client investments. These strategies help work toward a lean sized power generation and/or energy offset management system that can maximize on-site energy use and reduce energy costs. Usually, these systems require a lucrative payback period and need to align with building owners’ decarbonization strategies.

How has the demand for energy recovery technology influenced the design for these kinds of projects?

Mark J. Richter: State and local codes dictate various energy efficiency measures through adoption of the International Energy Conservation Code. Compliance with these codes and standards can result in high capital construction costs, specifically in energy recovery. Unlike mechanical plant design upgrades, which may be localized to a non-occupied space, energy recovery upgrades may require both new and upgraded infrastructure, as well as upgrades to distributed systems throughout a building. In existing assets, upgrades to the distributed systems can significantly impact finished spaces, which in turn can rapidly impact project budgets.

High-performance design strategies have been shown to have an impact on the performance of the building and its occupants. What value-add items are you adding these kinds of facilities to make the buildings perform at a higher and more efficient level?

Mark J. Richter: Façade design can have significant impact on both building efficiencies and occupant satisfaction throughout the lifecycle of a building. Maintaining design features, such as abundance of natural light, is crucial to occupant satisfaction and needs to be achieved in conjunction with optimal thermal performance of the façade or envelope. Utilizing simulation-based analysis to determine the proper combination of vision glazing, exterior and interior shading, interior thermal mass materials and overall assembly thermal performance values will assure minimal heat gain and loss and will optimize passive heating. Optimization of the building envelope can lead to a phenomenon known as the tipping points, where a façade that is properly designed from a heat gain/loss perspective leads to more efficiently sized thermal equipment and comfort delivery systems. This creates smaller plant generation equipment, thus optimizing the building’s performance.

What level of performance are you being asked to achieve, such as WELL Building Standards, LEED certification, net zero energy, Passive House or other guidelines? Describe a project and its goals, identifying the geographic location of the building.

Mark Walsh-Cooke: In Washington DC, we’re working on several multifamily residential buildings where the developer’s goals include both LEED Platinum and International Living Futers Institute Carbon Neutral. During the schematic design phase of the project, we used parametric energy modelling to analyze multiple combinations of façade insulation, glazing specification, infiltration reduction goals and HVAC system type in order to find the optimal project solution.