Fire, life safety trends drive industrial, manufacturing building design

Fire and life safety systems in industrial and manufacturing buildings must protect both occupants and materials within the facility

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 15, 2023
This new two-story warehouse meets the changing needs and functionality of retail and ecommerce, allowing online retailers, logistics providers to make same-day deliveries to millions of people in New York City and surrounding area. Courtesy: Syska Hennessy Group

Fire, life safety insights on manufacturing and industrial buildings

  • Fire protection engineers are working with their clients to ensure both human occupants and materials are protected from fire.
  • Insurance providers may require specific fire protection or suppression, depending on the items within an industrial or manufacturing building.

July 2023 MEP roundtable. Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

July 2023 MEP roundtable. Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology


  • Jason Gass, PE, CFPS, Fire Protection Discipline Engineer, CDM Smith, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Alex Engelman, PE, LEED AP, CEM, Associate Principal, Syska Hennessy Group, New York, New York
  • Matthew Merli, PE, Principle/Science & Technology Market Leader, Fitzmeyer & Tocci Associates Inc., Woburn, Massachusetts

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?

Jarron Gass: When a change in the use or occupancy type of an existing building or space results in a higher or increased hazard that needs to be protected, water supply issues and sizing of existing infrastructure often present challenges. It is a balancing act to determine if infrastructure needs to be replaced and a more prescriptive code solution applied or exploring the use of performance-based design to meets the required objectives of prescriptive codes through alternative means and methods developed out of tools like fire and smoke modeling or even full-scale fire testing.

Matthew Merli: Certainly, any projects where there is hazardous storage is important to understand. Typically, there would be a maximum allowable quantity analysis done to understand control areas and quantities, etc. F&T has in-house life safety and code consulting service, so we can do that internally to help clients understand the necessary requirements. It also affects multiple trades/people, including fire protection/alarm, HVAC and architectural (to name a few). It is also important to understand a client’s insurer, as the they have requirements above/beyond code standards that design professionals need to know about.

What clean agent, aerosol, chemical, oxygen reduction or other specialty fire suppression systems typically specified?

Jarron Gass: There are many halon alternatives available on the market and each one has unique strengths and drawbacks. This might be one of the reasons why customers that have legacy halon systems in place will move heaven and earth to maintain them. I recently had a challenging renovation of a small server space that required some massaging of existing walls and ceilings to maintain volumes while accommodating newer equipment that did not fit into the current space. We ultimately had to make the area of the room smaller to be able to increase the ceiling height and achieve the desired outcome.

Alex Engelman: Depending on the client and program, dry type chemical suppression or foam type suppression is sometimes used; but we work closely with the client and authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to confirm those program areas and the suppression approach as early as we can.

How have the trends in fire/life safety changed in industrial and manufacturing facility projects?

Jarron Gass: There is a pivot toward increased levels of safety as well as new challenges dealing with environmental/health concerns from the various solutions available. These increased safety measures are often driven by risk insurance rather than adopted codes, as well as oversight from multiple governmental agencies. These changes may come with larger up-front investments, but are considered to provide greater levels of safety with decreased down time. Other challenges tied into the process is during expansion projects that pose substantial changes to things like egress paths and distances. This sometimes leads to unconventional solutions to comply with prescriptive codes, which can include some type of performance-based element through virtual models and simulations to validate required verse actual egress times.

This new two-story warehouse meets the changing needs and functionality of retail and ecommerce, allowing online retailers, logistics providers to make same-day deliveries to millions of people in New York City and surrounding area. Courtesy: Syska Hennessy Group

This new two-story warehouse meets the changing needs and functionality of retail and ecommerce, allowing online retailers, logistics providers to make same-day deliveries to millions of people in New York City and surrounding area. Courtesy: Syska Hennessy Group

Alex Engelman: Batteries and evolving chemistries have rippled the industry. Building codes are slow to adapt and local AHJ generally heed caution when lithium-ion is mentioned in their presence. There are dangers associated with certain battery types that need to be recognized in our design approach. The latest building codes now delineate between all battery types and are explicit in how to treat each of them, including additional protective measures, specialty UL testing/listings and a hazard mitigation analysis be performed. Material classification, handling and quantities can be difficult to define during project programming, but they play a major role in establishing fire and life safety criteria. When the design criteria are burdening the project, an alternate solution has been to deploy small scale battery storage container at the building exterior. This has been a cost-effective strategy to keep the hazardous materials out of the building and put the local AHJ at ease.

Matthew Merli: One trend we have been seeing recently is on large industrial projects, where the process is noisy and occupants have ear protection, is studying to make sure we are putting in the correct horn/strobes to fit that application for a fire alarm system.

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

Jarron Gass: I have noticed some of these more passive features used for separation of hazardous materials or for flammable and combustible liquid storage rooms. It is a convenient use of available prescriptive codes to provide an avenue for limited increased hazards without driving an entire facility into that same increased hazard that isn’t prevalent throughout most of the occupancy. Passive fire separation in conjunction with other increased protection in these areas can facilitate increased hazards in these limited spaces without compromising overall safety. They allow for multifaceted facilities to be constructed and maintained in a safe manner.

Alex Engelman: Early suppression fast response (ESFR) sprinkler systems offer the most flexibility for facility use type by allowing denser storage configurations and omission of mechanical smoke removal systems. This type of sprinkler system is attractive to developers who are building spec facilities that can suit a wide variety of programming. For large volume spaces; beam detection or very early smoke detection apparatus (VESDA) is sometimes used.

Do you see any future changes/requests to the structural design of these buildings regarding fire/life safety systems?

Jarron Gass: There is always a push to decrease cost where feasible. This led to the design and specification of lightweight steel structures. However, in the United States, perhaps future trending could find a balance with increased fire ratings of structural components to offset other costlier or more intense fire protection components. Particularly in reuse situations, where you are wholesale changing the occupancy type of a building and likely in concert with a performance-based design approach that uses an approach with alternative means and methods. We must continue to get creative in solving new challenges in the built environment to balance required safety levels with practicality.

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

Jarron Gass: While cost has undoubtedly increased naturally, complexity has also increased with purpose. If you think about the origins of a fire sprinkler system, it is easy to see where continued research and development has created new technology and solutions to continue to meet challenges. In the past, there were three types of fire sprinklers (upright, pendent, sidewall) strictly around the orientation of the individual sprinkler. Now there are sprinklers specifically for certain occupancies as well as sprinklers designed around different water supply scenarios. More choices have created complexity, but with the purpose of increasing safety.

How have changes to codes, BIM and wireless devices/systems impacted fire and life safety system design for these buildings?

Jarron Gass: With a traditionally performance specification-based approach to fire protection creating a deferred design scenario where contractors ultimately own the final design, BIM in fire protection has seemingly lagged.

However, there has been an increase in this recently with more projects finding the value in a fully collaborative design process. Post design conflict coordination with fire suppression systems has been increasing as builders see the value in this clash detection that can speed up the construction process by eliminating conflicts and ultimately limiting change orders for design changes. There is value in the design build environment to onboard specific contractors earlier in the process to start the design process sooner and fully use more of the BIM tools available. Not just adding it on the back end helps cut down on the amount of redesign that can affect multiple disciplines in a cascading effect.