Fire & Life Safety

Gaining Popularity

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 school facility designs have evolved and become more complex new approaches have increased the necessity and popularity of a performance-based code approach in the United States, but implementation 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 Their Incorporation of 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 just 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)
  • NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code)

The International Code Council (ICC) also addresses performance-based design in documents that include the International Performance Code, International Building Code and 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. The goal is usually very broad and differs from prescriptive codes which spell out exactly what steps should be taken.

Assemble the Design Team

It is important to understand that the district design team should not attempt to create a performance-based design on it’s own. Architects, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, as well as fire protection engineers and representatives from the user and local authorities all need to work together during the design, construction and acceptance of a performance-based design. Highly 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 methods. One simply does not replace the other.

Long-Term Impact

The district 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 two- to seven-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 in a performance design. 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 to determine if there is a need for modifications to the performance-based design.

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

  • With each functional change, 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 districts can identify opportunities when a performance-based design is appropriate. Often times, the best building candidates are older historic structures. Performance-based designs can help preserve the historic elements of the building, as well as ensure that modern day life safety is incorporated into the building.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of School 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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