Fire Hazards and Fire Code Pitfalls When Increasing Your Occupancy Load
As an architect, you want to design a building that meets the owner’s needs and allows you to be creative at the same time. The balancing act can be difficult when you are wedged between the extensive fire code requirements for high-occupancy structures and the needs of the owner. The process can feel as though you are being pushed through a minefield. The good news is, we know where the mines are located and how to disarm them.
Identifying Fire Code Requirements for Large Assembly Buildings
Large assembly spaces pose a unique set of pitfalls to architects. The fire code can be extremely specific, and increasing occupancy levels can trigger new codes and requirements. For example, simply by changing the activity occurring in a space, the room may change occupancies and be treated as an assembly space. The classification means additional fire and life safety features will need to be evaluated. Sometimes, the change in classification triggers a need to install a sprinkler system in the building or portion of the building – even if the rest of the building would not have required one beforehand. Other requirements may include changing door hardware, adding additional paths of egress, installing or modifying a fire alarm system, evaluating and potentially upgrading the types of construction, and evaluation of exit signage and emergency lighting.
Occupancy and room-use also determine the size of egress doors and stairwells. We were recently consulted for a renovation and add-on project to disarm the complex challenges of upgrading a large assembly space.
The occupancy of our client’s building was approximately 8,000 people. They had a ballroom, a theatre, dining areas, and miscellaneous conference rooms. Determining overall occupancy of the building was crucial in the early stages of the project so that the location and sizing of the stairwells could be determined. In order to finish the project to meet the owner’s schedule, the construction of the building’s foundation and structural steel needed to begin before the final building interior design was completed. We conducted a life safety analysis to ensure the stairwells would be deemed an acceptable size by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) once the project was completed. It would have been nearly impossible to modify the stairwell locations or sizes during the final stages of construction. The early involvement of a fire protection engineer allowed the design team to proceed confidently with the aggressive project schedule.
Life safety is a specialty area in fire protection engineering, spanning across multiple disciplines, including but not limited to sprinklers, fire alarm systems, building construction, electrical, mechanical, process, and special hazards. This specialty gives us a unique ability to understand and communicate all of the technical elements of your project. Then, we can present the design to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) and advocate on your behalf. Our design and documentation can demonstrate that your building’s level of fire protection and/or life safety elements meet or exceed the fire code requirements – even if it does not follow them to the letter.
By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.