High standards for labs, research buildings: Fire and life safety

Laboratory and research facilities are high-performance buildings, often with complex systems and exacting standards for engineers to meet. Fire and life safety challenges abound in these buildings.

By Jenni Spinner, contributing writer May 22, 2014


  • Bryan Laginess, PE, LEED AP, Senior associate, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.
  • Jeremy Lebowitz, PE, Vertical market leader, Rolf Jensen & Associates Inc., Framingham, Mass.
  • Brian Rener, PE, LEED AP, Associate, SmithGroupJJR, Chicago
  • Joshua Yacknowitz, PE, LEED AP, Associate principal, Arup, New York City

CSE: What unique fire suppression systems have you specified or designed in a laboratory/research facility?

Lebowitz: The most frequent specialty fire protection system we recommend is an explosion control system (in lieu of deflagration venting). Site constraints will often limit the location of a blast panel, and the materials being protected may dictate a vent area that is too large to be accommodated. In those situations, we may recommend vapor/gas detection interlocked with a purge mode exhaust aimed at preventing a deflagration from occurring, rather than allowing it to occur and venting to the building exterior.

CSE: How have the costs and complexity of fire protection systems changed in recent years?

Lebowitz: In general, it seems like we are asking more of fire protection systems, especially on the alarm side. We may have a single speaker system tied in to the building fire alarm (smoke detection, pull stations, sprinkler waterflow alarm, etc.), emergency communication/mass notification system, toxic gas monitoring system, security system, and BMS. The keys are ensuring that each of these systems communicates, and establishing the priority levels well ahead of time so that you aren’t finding out during an emergency that your system doesn’t work the way you had intended.

CSE: What type of unique smoke control solutions have you designed in these buildings? What were the challenges/solutions?

Lebowitz: One challenge we see in laboratories with an atrium is atrium smoke control exhaust competing with laboratory exhaust. Is the supply air designed for both to operate simultaneously, or does the atrium smoke control system overpower the laboratory exhaust and cause your lab doors to swing into the atrium, or does the lab exhaust dominate and evacuate smoke through the lab? This is one example of how integrated testing of these systems can catch potential oversights in system performance.

CSE: Can you please offer advice on dealing with NFPA 45: Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals?

Lebowitz: This is much easier said than done. If the user is involved in designing a building or tenant space to comply with NFPA 45 ahead of time, it can be more straightforward to establish a consensus on the solvent quantities and protection levels. When the code changes, or when a fire department comes in and enforces the code for the first time, there may be the feeling of “we’ve always done it this way, aren’t we grandfathered?” But that doesn’t mean that it can’t and shouldn’t be done more safely, and NFPA 45 is aimed at achieving a baseline level of safety in laboratories with chemicals. The bigger challenge can be establishing a culture of proactive compliance, so that the user isn’t fighting with the officials (or designers) against the provisions of NFPA 45. There is usually an alternative method of approach available if a hardship truly does occur, but more often than not it’s just that a user doesn’t understand the rationale behind a requirement. Once we can illustrate the importance of the requirement, it’s easier to get buy-in.

CSE: Describe a recent project in which a mass notification system (MNS) or emergency communication system (ECS) was specified.

Lebowitz: We have not specified an ECS (other than a voice fire alarm system) for a specific laboratory project, but we have seen more corporate and higher education clients with laboratory spaces included in their site reviewing the need and strategy for ECS. ECS has been an extremely popular system on higher education campuses for the last several years, and now corporate campuses are starting to review the benefits these systems can provide. One of our clients that is currently reviewing the ECS/Emergency Management Planning concerns is Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The university is reviewing its current strategies related to ECS for its current and future laboratory spaces. One of the challenges related to ECS in a laboratory is the coordination of information inside the laboratory and actions to be taken in the event of an emergency. More than likely, the staff in the laboratory will not be able to immediately respond to an emergency notification (evacuation) due to system operations and shutdown procedures. The coordination of notifications and response activities is a critical issue related to ECS in laboratory spaces, but we are starting to see groups addressing these issues early on in the design process, and that has allowed them to develop sound approaches to coordination of emergency activities in the event of an emergency affecting their space specifically or the building/area where they are located.