Fire & Life Safety
- By Mike Halligan
- May 1st, 2016
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 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.
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
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
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.
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.