Fire & Life Safety (Focus On Preparation and Prevention)

Performance-Based Solutions

For the better part of the last 20 years, performance-based designs have been promoted as an alternative to traditional or prescriptive building, fire and life safety codes. The reason for this is that performance-based designs are tailored to meet the fire protection and life safety needs of a particular facility. As campus facility designs have evolved and become more complex — consider a campus residential high-rise building combined with retail, classroom and office space — new approaches have increased the necessity and popularity of a performance-based code approach.

While the performance-based design approach is quite common in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, implementation in the U.S. over the past 20 years has been slow. The reason for such slow acceptance is due in part to the code restrictions mandated by local and state governments.

Codes and Performance-Based Solutions

Performance-based design has been increasing in popularity due to situations where prescriptive codes don’t adequately address or meet the design needs of a more unique facility. Most facility planners and architects would agree that building codes have not kept pace with technological innovation and current construction practices. To account for this fact, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has started to include performance-based options in several of its prescriptive codes, including NFPA 1 (Uniform Fire Code), NFPA 13 (Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems), NFPA 72 (National Fire Alarm Code) and NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code).

The International Code Council (ICC) also addresses performance-based design in documents that include the International Performance Code, the International Building Code and the International Fire Code.

Performance-based design differs from prescriptive design in that designers can use alternative solutions as long as they meet the stated goal of the performance-based code.

Assemble the Design Team

The campus design team should not attempt to create a performance-based design on its own. There is a need for a team of disciplines to work together: architects, electrical engineers and mechanical engineers, as well as fire protection engineers and representatives from the user and local authorities having jurisdiction all need to work together during the design, construction and acceptance of a performance-based design. Skilled engineers, designers and safety professionals understand the purpose and goals of both prescriptive and performance methods. They also understand that there are pros and cons to both design methods.

Long-Term Impact

The campus must also understand what the long-term impacts of a performance-based approach will have on building uses and maintenance of critical systems. Too often maintenance is not adequately funded for highly complex HVAC systems or simple items such as horizontal fire doors. There can be as much as a 2 to 7 percent increase in maintenance costs for systems with unique sequencing to control the spread of smoke. The team will need to factor in the upfront cost of performance-based solutions and weigh any upfront savings with long-term maintenance costs.

Functions that may take place inside a performance-based design may be limited. Fuel loads and fire spread are key factors. Altering fuel loads may have a negative impact on life safety systems. Changes of use — even minor changes — will require a review of the original performance design parameters.

There is a place for performance-based design on our campuses. The important elements to remember are:

  • With each functional change during the life of the building, new plans must be compared to the original fire safety goals established during the design of the performance-based code-compliance document.
  • Initial cost savings must be measured against any increase in long-term maintenance.

Most campuses can identify opportunities when a performance-based design for fire safety is appropriate. Oftentimes, the best building candidates are older historic structures that a campus wants to find a new purpose for. Performance-based designs can help preserve the historic elements of the building as well as ensure that modern-day life safety is incorporated.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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