Historic Preservation, Modern Fire Protection

America’s 2,500-plus college and university campuses comprise a treasure trove of historic buildings. Over the years, campus facility directors and campus architects have grown adept at maintaining these structures, often carrying out major adaptive-reuse renovations.

Fire safety ranks as one of the most daunting challenges to successful adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Key fire safety issues for historic buildings include the path of egress — a clearly marked, unobstructed escape route to be used if a fire does break out.

In multistory buildings, the path of egress includes stairways, which during a fire act as chimneys drawing smoke and fire to the upper levels. Fire safety requires some means of protecting stairways from fire and smoke to maintain an unobstructed path of egress.

A third issue involves finding creative ways to install automatic fire-extinguishing systems — sprinkler systems. While there are other issues, these three illustrate the need for an understanding of fire-safety codes, the creative ability to develop alternatives when necessary, and for code officials willing to apply judgment when evaluating alternatives that vary from the norm.

While there are other issues, these three illustrate the need to think creatively to satisfy the intent of fire-safety building codes.

Understanding the Codes
Traditionally, building codes have differed from state to state and local jurisdiction to local jurisdiction, but that is changing. “At one time there were four or five national codes, and many jurisdictions followed their own codes,” says Leon Yudkin Geoxavier, a project manager with Walker Restoration Consultants in New York City. “Today, the U.S. is moving toward one code, the International Building Code (IBC). Some jurisdictions — New York City, for instance — will continue to have supplements, but overall the IBC is making life easier.”

International codes include the IBC and the International Existing Building Code (IEBC). Both are helping to simplify the complicated building code system. “Rather than requiring a building system to be X, Y, and Z, the International Codes refer to industry standards,” continues Geoxavier. “When it comes to fire suppression, the International Codes refer to or use language from standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).”

The IEBC covers existing buildings, including, of course, historic buildings. In fact, Chapter 12 of the IEBC provides extensive guidance for renovating historic buildings.

Depending on the nature of the project, Chapter 12 may not come into play. The Code divides what it calls “alterations” into three levels. The Code defines Level 1 alterations as “the removal and replacement of the covering of existing materials, elements, equipment, or fixtures using new materials, elements equipment, or fixtures that serve the same purpose.”

Level 2 increases in complexity and involves work such as “the reconfiguration of space, the addition or elimination of any door or window, the reconfiguration or extension of any system, or the installation of any additional equipment.”

Level 3, the highest level, covers renovations to more than 50 percent of the building’s square footage.
“When renovating a historic building, you start out by working within these three levels,” says Glenn Suttenfield, project manager with Richmond-based Glave & Holmes Architecture, a firm with broad experience in renovating historic college and university buildings.

If you need to alter some element connected to the historic nature of the building, check Chapter 12 – Historic Buildings and work things out with the code official, who, as always, is the final arbiter, continues Suttenfield.

The Path of Egress
The Code specifically empowers code officials to make judgments exempting historic properties from certain standards. For instance, the Historic Buildings Chapter allows the code official to make judgments about the path of egress: “Existing door openings and corridor and stairway widths less than those specified elsewhere in this code may be approved, provided that, in the opinion of the code official, there is sufficient width and height for a person to pass through the opening or traverse the means of egress.”

“Of course, a dangerous condition in a historic property will trump the historic card,” notes Suttenfield.

Keeping the Stairs Safe
Built in 1882, Newcomb Hall at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, recently underwent a major renovation and restoration. During a fire, the three-story building’s unenclosed switchback stairway — the only stairway in the building — could draw in fire and smoke and make it impossible for people on the upper floors to get out.

“We added fire-rated doors to a couple of the openings to the upper floors,” says Suttenfield. “At certain openings, though, we wanted to maintain the open appearance, which was part of the building’s historic character. Instead of a door, we used a water curtain.”

A set of sprinkler heads across the top of the entry way can create a fire-rated curtain of water that prevents fire or smoke from getting through an open doorway and protect people making their way down the stairs during a fire.

Sprinkler Systems
Sometimes sprinkler systems can lead a code official to allow an unenclosed stairwell in a historic building to remain unenclosed. That’s what happened during a recent renovation at Emory & Henry College in Emory, VA.

Built in 1836, Wiley Hall was the first building on the Emory & Henry College campus, which is listed in its entirety in the National Register of Historic Places.

Wiley Hall features two main stairwells, each opening to a main hallway. Both stairwells have remained open since they were first built, and the architect didn’t want to enclose them when he developed the design for a major renovation.

“We added a sprinkler and fire alarm system, and the Code Official didn’t require us to enclose the stairs,” says Kenneth C. Mayer, Jr., FAIA, LEED-AP, a principal with the Greensboro, NC-based architectural firm of Moser Mayer Phoenix Associates, PA. “If you can get an automatic sprinkler system into a building, the Code grants a lot of flexibility.”

Of course, getting a sprinkler system into a building can be tricky. Mayer says he has run sprinkler lines along the walls of classrooms to avoid marring the historical interest of the walls and ceilings in the corridor outside. “We’ve also made fake coffers or moldings that look as if they belong to hide the lines.”

What About the Fire Alarm System?

What about the fire alarm system itself? Isn’t it difficult to integrate all of the electronics and cabling required to cover an entire building with a fire alarm system?

“The fire alarm part is easier than you might think,” Suttenfield says. “In a major renovation, you are already running a lot of conduit for the new electrical lines. You are also breaking through masonry walls for ventilation ductwork and sprinkler pipes. It’s easy to piggyback the fire alarm system on top of those systems.

“It’s easy, yes, but you also need to make sure to find the best possible system for the building and install it right. It is maybe the most important part of maintaining a historic property. You need a good system that will alert you in time to mitigate the problem — before the sprinkler system goes off. Sprinklers are hard on new buildings. You really don’t want them going off in a historic building unless it is absolutely necessary.” 

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