Technological advances in building construction materials and methods are becoming an increasing challenge to traditional fire protection practices. Fortunately, building codes typically provide a mechanism for considering nontraditional design. This mechanism offers a vehicle for growing collaboration between three key constituents: fire departments, buildings departments, and property owners. This increased collaboration can, in turn, benefit all three.
Forward-thinking design professionals can conjure up plans that leave traditions behind. Still, they must either meet standard building code requirements or prove “equivalency.” It’s the allowance for equivalency that offers potential for far greater benefit than it has in the past. I’ve seen that potential in my role as a fire protection engineer who has successfully petitioned for equivalency. Interestingly, technology enhances this opportunity.
Most construction codes allow for equivalent solutions to prescriptive requirements. These equivalency clauses permit you to present alternative designs for approval to local authorities—the authority having jurisdiction. Such performance-based design solutions can address unique aspects of a project such as building use, architectural configuration, and specific stakeholder needs. You can evaluate alternative systems as part of the design process to provide a fire protection strategy integrated with the individuality of a building. These clauses can also become the basis for increased collaboration around which all three of these key constituencies would learn from each other.
An example of this potential can be seen in a project on which I recently worked: a new corporate headquarters for a technology company in a formerly abandoned church in a downtown urban area. The benefits of this project to the community are profound; it restores and revitalizes a formerly abandoned and historic property, it adds the cachet of a thriving technology company to the downtown business landscape, and it creates much-sought-after technology jobs. However, by its very nature, the project is nontraditional; tucking a corporate headquarters into an historic church requires creativity and a nontraditional approach to evaluation. One of the project’s features is a dual atrium, essentially side-by-side atriums, one of which is the former nave of the church. That’s where equivalency and fire modeling become key.
Fire modeling, an important tool for the fire protection engineer, can be used not only to demonstrate equivalency but also to provide benefits to fire service personnel. For example, you can simulate fire compartment temperatures and toxic gas concentrations for selected fire scenarios. Trial designs can show the impact of a proposed system compared to traditional prescriptive designs. These models can be composed of simple hand calculations or sophisticated computer models, also known as computational fluid dynamics.
In this case, I created fire models that projected the development of different fire scenarios inside this dual-atrium structure. They revealed, for use by the buildings department and fire personnel, the paths that fires could take and strategies designed to prevent and contain them. They not only demonstrated that the designs more than met the standard code expectations but also informed fire officials so that they would better understand the conditions of the building. This is where the opportunity for greater collaboration becomes so significant. The equivalency clause can open the door to understanding how fire moves and, therefore, is prevented, in addition to ensuring compliance. By contrast, the standard code simply ensures compliance.
This greater understanding benefits all three constituencies. The property owner gets the desired innovative structure, the buildings department (and the city) gets a structure that not only is safe but also enhances the economic environment and strengthens the downtown area, and the fire department gets a safer building and a better understanding of the conditions inside the structure so fire personnel can better anticipate and address any situation that might arise. The opportunity also provides a chance and a need for greater collaboration among those three constituencies. This opportunity will only be realized on a large enough scale if the three parties understand each other’s priorities and concerns sufficiently.
Buildings departments need to be prepared to receive and evaluate more equivalency petitions. Fire departments need to take advantage of more frequent fire modeling. Property owners need to understand the expectations and concerns of evaluators. All three should be informed by the other, and all three will benefit in the process.
Equivalency clauses offer an exciting opportunity for innovation in construction. They should also be the basis for enhanced communication among—and increased benefit for—fire departments, buildings departments, and property owners.
DANIEL COLOMBINI is a fire protection engineer. He is also a principal at the New York City-based consulting engineering firm Goldman Copeland.