Government facility design: Codes and standards

Consulting engineers are working on government, state, municipal, federal, correctional and military buildings

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 31, 2019


Jody W. Baldwin, LEED AP, CEM 

Branch Manager, Mid Atlantic Division 

Envise, a wholly owned subsidiary of Southland Industries 

Sterling, Virginia 


Christopher Carter, EIT 

Associate/Graduate Electrical Engineer 


Austin, Texas 


Mark Chrisman, PE, MS 

Vice President/Healthcare Practice Director 

Henderson Engineers 

Kansas City 


Gary Krueger, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CM 

Vice President and Executive Director 

TLC Engineering Solutions 

Cocoa, Florida 


Joshua Meinig, PE 

Senior Mechanical Engineer 

CDM Smith 

Orlando, Florida 


Brian Pak, PE, LEED AP, BEMP 

Senior Mechanical Engineer, Department Lead 


Fairfax, Virginia 

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

Chrisman: Generally, within the public sector, the better question to ask is: Which codes, standards and guidelines do not apply? 

General Services Administration projects are likely the most straightforward of the governmental organizations. All codes published by the International Code Council are used as well as NFPA 101: Life Safety Code. While the ICC building and fire codes are generally aligned with NFPA 101, there are some conflicting and duplicative criteria that require discussion during design. 

Many of the General Services Administration projects we get involved with include minor tenant renovations in buildings that are partially protected with sprinklers, have a partial fire alarm system and/or issues with means of egress. It’s critical to take a holistic look at all of the passive and active safety features in the entire building (not just the scope of work), as well as any approved compensatory measures or alternate means and methods when working on these remodels and renovations.  

There have been several instances where we had to address something in another part of the building (not in the scope of work) to show compliance in an area. I would also recommend folks working on renovations get familiar with NFPA 241: Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alternation and Demolition. This is applicable on most public-sector projects and offers guidance for what to do during construction. 

Meinig: The state building, mechanical, plumbing, energy conservation and fuel and gas codes including local codes and guidelines, NFPA 1, 13, 20, 24, 25, 30, 30A, 37, 54, 70, 90, 400 and 820. ASHRAE 55, 62.1, 90.1, ANSI Z358-1, DEP regulations and Unified Facilities Criteria.  

Some of the most challenging projects are those for the U.S. military. Providing LEED designs, while adhering to all applicable NFPA codes, state codes and Unified Facilities Criteria (on military projects, UFC typically take precedence). 

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

Krueger: Engineers need to carefully evaluate and identify appropriate codes (and controlling codes) early in the design process. Codes also often offer multiple paths for compliance, so it is equally important to evaluate and determine proposed compliance path. Life safety evaluation is especially critical based on potential of multi discipline/system impact.  

We often recommend early consultations with AHJ, life safety and antiterrorism force protection, code officials to allow a review and confirmation of proposed design approach to avoid subsequent surprises based on code interpretation issues. IBC remains the dominant code reference (and derivative FBC) as well as UFC (for Department of Defense), General Services Administration and Veterans Affairs specific criteria.

Chrisman: A best practice is to work with a fire protection engineer familiar with the applicable codes, standards and criteria if you don’t have one on your team. These experts are involved with code compliance in some way, shape or form with almost every system in a building and can often assist with interpretations and/or guide a discussion with an AHJ. They also often run into obscure standards more often than other design disciplines. 

Meinig: Before design starts, pull all applicable codes and standards and read through sections you are not totally familiar. Through the design process check the energy models to ensure your building is performing as expected.

CSE: How are codes, standards or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such projects? 

Meinig: Building controls and automation systems are becoming more important due to the new standards and guidelines. For existing structures, it is very important to work with the owner when integrating existing control systems with new system designs or vice versa. 

Krueger: A vast majority of the recent changes to the building codes has been driven by energy considerations, which has directly affected the design process. The previous approach, which tended to rely on confirming energy compliance at the end of a project, has given way to a process that focuses on the early stage of the project including decisions to use prescriptive versus performance path and the need for effective energy modeling to demonstrate compliance, building orientation and building envelope (including glazing characteristics) are now carefully considered as a driving influence on building design.

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

Meinig: We look at the International Energy Conservation Code, since technology has a lot to do with the progression of energy efficiency. As technology progresses, construction and energy efficiency will follow. 

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

Baldwin: As data needs and wants have grown, so has the need for expanded networks. Bandwidth and latency have become everyday words as our hunger for data has grown. Existing facilities present several obstacles when we try to grow the connectivity infrastructure.  

There are environmental concerns associated with lead paint and asbestos-containing materials and there are physical challenges with wall construction, thickness and prevalence. These latter challenges make traditional wired infrastructures problematic and costly, but also limit or prohibit the use of wireless technologies. Existing buildings force us to be data efficient. This is a lesson that could also play well in new construction where we often collect data we will never need or use. 

Krueger: Existing buildings often include limitations on existing building orientation envelope performance characteristics. Existing building geometry, layout or limited interstitial space often compromise our ability to introduce energy savings measured effectively. Existing roofs often lack the structural integrity to integrate PV arrays. 

Chrisman: Renovations in existing buildings are almost always a challenge for code compliance. We’re often involved in minor renovations that have limited scope, tight construction budgets and a quick schedule when we run into an overall building compliance issue that may have significant cost and schedule implications.  

We try to identify these issues early and have discussions with the building owner, AHJ and design team. The hope is to discuss the risk for the project and overall building and occupants and put together a plan to address the current project scope and any potential other projects, waivers and/or equivalencies that may be needed. Specifically, in public projects, there are often many individuals involved in this process and it requires additional time to come to a consensus. 

Meinig: Trying to maintain current code with a building that was not design to the current code. This could be means of egress, equipment locations or wall opening locations. 

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

Krueger: Although building codes do introduce some limitations, they also have become more flexible in entertaining or incorporating design options or alternative compliance paths. Additional flexibility can also often be addressed through interactive consultation with the AHJ especially for unique or unusual conditions. 

CSE: What codes or guidelines have you used to enhance the security on such a project? Example: NFPA 3000: Standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response. 

Meinig: Although not a code, I have helped provide design solutions for a risk/hazard analysis and HVAC design scheme for the shelter-in-place plan for the owner’s emergency management team to help mitigate potential hazards. 

Krueger: Depending on the client and project type we have used (individually or in combination) antiterrorism/force protection requirements of UFC 1-200-01; Veterans Affairs Physical Security Design Manual, CITP, Federal Emergency Management Agency, General Services Administration ATFP criteria.