Building codes typically offer the best of both worlds when it comes to fire protection: they are prescriptive, requiring specific materials and methods; and, they allow for “equivalent” design solutions, enabling creative approaches to be proposed. Yet building owners often overlook the latter option, even though it enables innovative solutions that can be superior to standard practice.
The methodology for providing “equivalent” design solutions is known as performance-based design, and that concept has come a long way since Hammurabi’s Code stated in 1754 BC that “a house should not collapse and kill anybody.” The modern version originated in 1965 in France. In its purest form, it achieves the desired end without explicit dictation of the means.
The National Fire Protection Association’s standard describes equivalency as follows: “Nothing in this standard is intended to prevent the use of systems, methods, or devices of equivalent or superior quality…over those prescribed by this standard. Technical documentation shall be submitted to the authority having jurisdiction to demonstrate equivalency.”
It’s that last sentence that can dissuade property owners. Equivalent designs must be presented to the local government agency that oversees buildings, and that process may seem daunting. But as a fire protection engineer who has successfully proposed equivalent designs in New York City and beyond, I can attest to the fact that the resulting innovations can be well worth the effort.
Those innovations can relate to “passive” fire protection systems and to “active” ones. Passive protection systems relate to how the building is constructed and confine the fire to a limited area, also protecting a safe path for evacuation. Active systems provide responses to a fire, alerting occupants and controlling its spread. They include fire detection, alarm, and sprinkler systems, as well as communication and hose systems for use by firefighting personnel to extinguish the fire.
Those systems can be designed to ensure safe evacuation of all occupants as well as mission continuity for critical operations such as hospitals and data centers. They focus on the dangers of smoke, which causes many fatalities, as well as fire. The complexity of different settings and of fire events themselves underscores the value of innovative solutions.
Such solutions are appropriate where traditional codes do not address unique conditions. Historic buildings, for example, present specific fire safety challenges that can be addressed through performance-based design.
I recently used that method when tasked with installing sprinklers in an historic office building lobby. I evaluated an alternate sprinkler installation, using a sophisticated fire model custom-developed to analyze sprinkler response time in the alternate configuration. The design was presented to the NYC DOB and approved, avoiding destruction of the intricately detailed plaster ceiling and the cost of that demolition.
Performance-based design may seem in concept unstructured, but it is used often enough that a framework for implementation has been developed. Fire protection goals are initially defined, almost always including protecting life safety and property. They may also include mission continuity as well as addressing specific circumstances such as preserving historic features. Once the fundamental goals are established, more specific criteria are developed to address additional stakeholder priorities.
With those goals and criteria in hand, the design process begins. Detailed drawings are developed; modeling and computer simulation may be involved. The process provides design flexibility and enables innovation in methods and materials.
The designs are then presented to project stakeholders for evaluation. They are refined further to reflect stakeholder comments before being approved for implementation. Ideally, this process starts in the conceptual phase of the project. It can, however, be implemented at any point.
Increasingly, property owners should see equivalency not as a daunting challenge but as an available opportunity. It’s an opportunity that can be used to build innovative fire protection designs that can enhance properties in ways that standard practice cannot.
Daniel Colombini is a fire protection engineer and a principal at Goldman Copeland, New York, N.Y.