Peeling the onion: How to design with codes and standards

At the foundation of every well-designed building lies a network of codes and standards. When incorporated properly, they can help create a safe and reliable facility. So, why is unraveling all these codes and standards such a quagmire for the engineer? Larry Wilson, P.E., senior vice president, Environmental Systems Design, Chicago, kicks off a continuing column on how to apply codes for a successful design.

By Larry Wilson, P.E., Senior Vice President, Environmental Systems Design, Chicago, Ill. August 27, 2007

At the foundation of every well-designed building lies a network of codes and standards. When incorporated properly, they can help create a safe and reliable facility. So, why is tackling them such a quagmire for the engineer?

With a maze of local, national and international codes and standards to comply with, discerning the requirements that apply to your facility can make any engineer feel like they’re peeling layers of an onion. Here are five tried-and-true tips to guide you through the process:

1. The search. When determining which codes and standards apply to your facility, start with the local city or village code, moving next to state authorities, including the state fire marshal, department of public health and more. Search engines such as can help take the legwork out of the process by allowing designers to pursue the contacts and code resources listed by city and state.

If you work in a specific region regularly, chances are you already know what codes and standards apply. But don’t skip this important step. Local and state jurisdictions are continually updating and amending their requirements. A thorough search needs to be conducted on every project regardless of a designer’s previous experience.

2. Rely on your architectural partner. The project’s owner and architect are jointly responsible for defining the facility’s occupancy, construction and building type (i.e., office building, mixed-use, hospital, etc.). The mechanical and electrical codes that dictate systems design criteria often coincide with this, so let your architectural partner take the first crack at defining which rules apply. For example, in a mixed-use facility, occupancy separations need to be outlined. In health care facilities, designations between hospital and ambulatory care center occupancies need to be identified.

Additionally, code trade-offs need to be jointly addressed by the owner, architect and engineer. Providing options for a facility, code trade-offs don’t allow you to simply swap one system for another, but instead, demand integration of all disciplines. For example, a fully-sprinklered building will often have less stringent construction and separation requirements, including fewer smoke barriers and fire walls, because of its building-wide fire protection. Architects and engineers need to navigate each building owner through this process based on previous experience and best judgment.

3. Technical guidelines. The initial search will uncover technical guidelines that apply to your project as well. Authored by industry organizations, including ASHRAE, the National Fire Protection Assn. (NFPA), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA), these guidelines outline design criteria, options, configurations and material choices for systems in every type of facility. For example, AIA’s technical guidelines on hospital patient room design dictate the appropriate number of beds as well as windows and bathroom square footage for each space. Go to for more information.

It is important to note that codes and standards and technical guidelines published by the above organizations may be both conflicting and complementary to one another. Typically, architects and engineers apply the most stringent option to their design. Again, experience and judgment will benefit the owner.

4. Projects with a long timeline. Projects with a design period lasting years instead of months are faced with a special challenge. Do you design the project to simply meet the requirements in effect the day design begins, or the day plans are issued?

Environmental Systems Design (ESD) has faced this challenge with several projects, but most recently with our expansion of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. Although design commenced in 2006, drawings won’t be issued until late 2008. The solution? The city of Chicago required that the architects and engineers design to meet 2006 codes, stipulating that any substantive changes to the 2007 and 2008 versions would be evaluated by both parties before possible implementation.

If designers neglect to address this issue, they may be unpleasantly surprised when the local authorities having jurisdiction require a change in the design and the documents in order to comply with an updated code, potentially incurring additional costs and/or delayed project completion.

5. Code consolidation. Until recently, every region of the country maintained its own codes and standards, making the task of unraveling codes overwhelming. But today, the industry is moving toward a central model: the International Building Code, or a uniform system of codes and standards including amendments from local jurisdictions.

Firms with national and international scope are cheering on this effort in order to simplify their process and create more consistent designs. For more information, go to .

Other resources include the following:

2. NFPA:
3. IEEE:

Next month, we’ll explore ASHRAE’s 90.1 energy standard that applies to the building envelope, lighting, HVAC systems and more.