Life safety systems at The Palmer House

The Palmer House has enhanced life safety systems to improve public safety in a grand Chicago hotel.

By Ralph E. Transue, PE, The RJA Group Inc., Chicago January 1, 2009

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After losing the original Palmer House Hotel to the Great Chicago Fire only 13 days after the hotel opened, Potter Palmer replaced it with an elegant new Palmer House, which opened in 1873. The seven-story hotel featured noncombustible construction, elevators, electric lights, and telephones in guest rooms. Commercial growth in Chicago supported construction of a new 25-story noncombustible hotel building adjacent to the existing hotel in 1927. That addition provided a new main entrance and grand lobby with ceiling murals of Greek mythology and ornate plaster work, an attraction even today.

Hilton Hotels Corp. bought the property in 1945, and it has been operated as one of Hilton’s premier properties since then. In 2005, Thor Equities acquired the property with a commitment to restore its grandeur and revive its mercantile face on Chicago’s State Street.

The Palmer House is the longest continuously operating hotel in the United States. Each owner has added life safety features to the property as the hotel has continued to maintain its reputation for quality as a world-class hotel.

Improving egress

Thor’s recent renovation project increased the property’s retail space from 50,000 to 150,000 sq ft and provided interior space to add three new interior protected exit stairs to improve egress capacity. The new stairs discharge directly to the outside, which permitted the removal of unsightly fire escapes from the State Street fa%%CBOTTMDT%%ade.

When the original buildings were completed in 1873 and 1927, the egress stairs discharged into the street-level arcade or other levels higher in the building. This was a common design practice for major hotels at the time. Although the building included many stairways, only one was continuous from the roof to the basement levels. The recent renovation project has improved the egress system by adding the three interior protected exits, which:

  • Connect the previously existing stairs serving guest room levels to exits that discharge directly to the outside at grade level

  • Increase exit capacity from the meeting room and ballroom levels.

Another improvement in the renovation project is the addition of fire-rated separations on guest room and meeting room floors to provide horizontal exits. This enhances public safety for both able-bodied and disabled occupants by providing separation and areas of refuge.

Entrance/exit doors, canopies, and corridors on the street level were improved to enhance the exterior appeal and permit expansion of the spaces dedicated to retail use.

See Jeffrey Tubbs’ article from the September issue of CSE to read more about egress design strategies.

Automatic sprinklers

In 1987, Hilton added automatic fire sprinkler systems in a major retrofit project covering all guest room and back-of-house floors. Quick-response sprinklers were selected for guest rooms to maximize response for life safety. The installation did not cover the ornate main lobby and the Empire Room in deference to the desire to protect the unique construction and decor of those well-known spaces. The lobby was covered by a projected-beam-type smoke detector until it was later covered by automatic sprinklers.

Hilton responded to the challenge of automatic sprinkler coverage in the ornate main lobby and the Empire Room in a subsquent project. The design and installation of the system was controlled carefully to conceal the piping and place the sprinklers in locations that harmonize with the unique decor, while conforming to coverage ratings. Placing the sprinklers in unobtrusive locations meeting applicable installation standards was a challenge met by attention to detail. The sprinkler locations were selected to fit unobtrusively into the pattern of plaster decor and coloring where sprinklers were to be visible. Other sprinklers were installed in previously existing openings in the plaster work. The result is that to the casual observer the sprinklers are not noticeable. It takes a trained eye to see them.

Fire alarm and smoke detection

The fire alarm and automatic fire detection systems have been installed and upgraded in several iterations. The most recent project was completed at the end of 2008; workers installed a high-rise fire alarm system in full compliance with the Chicago Building Code. The fire alarm replacement project proceeded in parallel with Thor’s renovation project and covers all of the hotel and retail areas. The system it replaced originally had been designed and installed by Hilton as a voluntary life safety system in accordance with national standards because the City of Chicago had no retroactive code requirement for such a system at that time. The first phase of the system was completed in 1985, including automatic fire detection in corridors and common spaces, voice and tone notification through speakers in corridors and common areas, and a firefighter two-way telephone communication system in major stairways. That system was extended to monitor the automatic sprinkler systems that were completed in 1987.

In time, Chicago enacted an ordinance that required fire detection and alarm systems in existing high-rise hotels. Hilton applied for and obtained the city’s approval of the existing system—with certain changes to more closely conform to Chicago practice—in 1997.

Single-station smoke alarms had been installed in guest rooms in 1982 and remain the method used for early warning to guests of the presence of a fire in the individual guest rooms and suites.

By 2003, the fire alarm system control equipment was becoming difficult to maintain due to decreasing availability of parts and electronic subassemblies. The decision to replace the alarm system was made in 2004 and included a major life safety improvement—the addition of notification speakers in every guest room. Hilton awarded the contract in 2005 and coordinated it to coincide with Thor’s renovation project.

The timing of contract awards presented a challenge to the fire alarm system designers and contractors. The fire alarm replacement project had been planned and bid based on the property configuration before the Thor acquisition. The system design and installation had to be revised to respond to the new configuration of the Thor renovation project, yet the renovation design and installation commenced after the fire alarm system replacement was already in progress. The challenge was met by close coordination among the designers and contractors who were not connected by contract, but who responded as a team to the interests of Hilton and Thor.

In addition to the improved guest room emergency voice notification system, the new system provides many more rooms for hearing-impaired guests equipped with strobe light notification appliances. In response to the Illinois Accessibility Code, Thor’s renovation project included a major increase in the number of guest rooms equipped for disabled guests, which also include special alarm system features. Disabled guests receive an audible and visible alarm notification signal if a fire is detected in their guest room or if the notification appliances are activated on their floor.

A grand hotel

A great deal of Palmer House business is tied to Chicago’s success as a convention city. The hotel itself provides assembly and exhibition facilities for large and small groups. A recent renovation of the exhibition space included installation of smoke detection and smoke removal systems as required by the Chicago Building Code for new construction of exhibition spaces exceeding 10,000 sq ft.

The Grand Ballroom, Red Lacquer Room, other assembly spaces, and the many smaller meeting rooms have been equipped with code-conforming audible and visible emergency notification speakers and strobe lights.

Since Hilton acquired the property in 1945 and as Thor has committed the resources to improve the property’s retail and hospitality presence, both owners have enhanced life safety systems to improve public safety in a grand Chicago venue.

These actions enable The Palmer House to remain a premier destination hotel for many years to come and enhance the rebirth of State Street as a commercial and mercantile hub of the city.

Author Information
Transue is a senior consultant for

ASHRAE and The Palmer House

ASHRAE has a long history at The Palmer House. The organization will hold its 14th Winter Conference/Meeting at the hotel Jan. 24 to 28, 2009. The first meeting was held in 1961, just after ASHRAE became the organization it is today (a merger of ASRE and ASHAE). The conference is held every three years. Additional information is at

The Palmer House renovation project

Thor Equities LLC added quite a bit during The Palmer House renovation project:

• New interior protected exit stairs

• Removal of fire escapes and restoration of the State Street fa%%CBOTTMDT%%ade

• Addition of 250-car underground valet parking

• Lobby bar and world-class restaurant

• Increased retail space from 50,000 to 150,000 sq ft

• Enlarged fitness center

• Improvements in meeting rooms

• Improvements in entrance/exit doors and corridors on the street level

• Improvements in the water supply risers that feed the automatic sprinkler systems

• High-rise fire detection and alarm systems.

Existing building planning and designing

New requirements of local building codes generally apply only to construction for which permits are issued after the effective date of the code requirement. As a result, existing buildings do not include all of the features that a code may require for new construction.

Two other conditions are worth noting:

• Occasionally, an authority having jurisdiction may enact retroactive code requirements.

• Many building codes contain provisions for existing buildings.

In most cases, the requirements for existing buildings are sensitive to existing conditions in buildings, providing a code-conforming method to improve public safety in existing buildings without having to meet the detail requirements of new construction codes. Many retroactive requirements also contain similar sensitivity and will allow the use of existing systems that provide desired functions.

In very old buildings that have not been subject to major renovation, conditions may exist that are “grandfathered” because the building was designed and constructed under an old code. Even if subject to inspection, the inspection authority’s usual legal authorization is to evaluate the building against the requirements that were in effect at the time of construction.

In the interest of public safety, building owners or operators may elect to retrofit properties with life safety improvements even when no retroactive code requirement has been enacted. Such improvements help maintain the marketability of the property and limit the liability of the owners and operators.

If life safety improvements are made when no local code requires them, national standards should be used by the designers and installers. One can reasonably expect that, if enacted, retroactive requirements will be based on national standards. Designing and installing life safety systems to less than national standards generally does not meet the current standard of care.

Planning the design and phasing the construction and installation of life safety improvements can be very different from that of new construction. It may be most cost-effective to make the improvements in conjunction with planned renovation or remodeling projects. The funding and sequencing of life safety improvements may be tied to a larger plan. Major factors include:

• Whether the building will be occupied, partially occupied, or unoccupied during the retrofit.

• The extent of the renovation or remodeling project.

• The planned duration of the project.

• The proportion of the building affected by the retrofit or remodeling project also may determine what code requirements may apply. The applicable building code may state a threshold level over which new construction requirements would apply rather than the code provisions for existing buildings.

• The support of the building owner and operator is vital to a successful retrofit project.

• Noise and restrictions of movement are inevitable.

• Occupant notices and progress reports are vital.

• Contractors need:

• Storage space

• Access for deliveries and refuse

• Adequate work area to be efficient

• A reliable schedule not interrupted by occupants.

In an occupied building, owners and operators may expect commitments from designers and contractors:

• Work rules

• Time restrictions on noise

• Contractor behavior

• Daily clean-up

• Scheduling access to areas with advanced notice.

Teamwork is essential. Representatives of the building operator, designer, and contractors must communicate and operate as a team for a successful project. Working in an existing building environment will always provide surprises that require resolution.

Contractors are responsible for means, methods, and successful completion; designers are responsible for project content and objectives; building operators are responsible for coordination with the owner and occupants. All must recognize the challenges faced by the others and be flexible.