Fire and Life Safety

Fire and life safety issues are critical to evaluating existing facilities, as well as to designing new facilities. Codes and standards are part of a dynamic process, and their application involves a series of trade-offs and interpretations by architects and local code officials.

Codes and standards ensure a minimum level of safety. Factors that affect safety include the activity planned, the number of occupants, the type of construction, the presence or absence of equipment such as sprinklers and smoke detectors, and the configuration of spaces in the building. Often, security considerations are at variance with life safety requirements. Prisoner-holding facilities, particularly, have unique requirements, because of the limited mobility of prisoners and the need to maintain control during an emergency.

Codes and regulations evolved from the need to provide a level of safety for users of a facility. Building regulations express legally acceptable minimum standards of construction for the public health, safety, and welfare. It is essential that design professionals address these regulations in the early stages of planning and design.

Building codes vary across the country. Furthermore, many professional and special industry groups have developed their own regulations that have been adopted by various jurisdictions. Today's building regulations and codes are divided into five major categories:

Model Codes 

Most jurisdictions across the country have adopted one of three model codes:

  • BOCA National Building Code - East and Midwest
  • Uniform Building Code - West
  • Standard Building Code - South

Model codes are amended each year by supplements and republished every three to four years to incorporate all revisions.

National Association Codes

Codes utilized nationally that are promulgated by organizations with a specific focus.

National Fire Protection Association(NFPA)

Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC)
  • National Plumbing Code

In municipalities that have not adopted a model code, the NFPA is a model guide.

Municipal, State, and Federal Regulations 

Though most jurisdictions across the country have adopted one of the model codes supplemented with the national association codes, some municipalities have enacted codes tailored to their own particular needs.

Federal bureaus, including the General Services Administration (GSA) which typically controls the development of federal courthouses, have enacted their own regulations.
GSA US Courts Design Guide (General Services Administration)

Building Standards

National building standards prepared by engineering labs and professional associations specializing in a particular area of interest.
ADA Standards for Accessible Design
ASTM International (American Society for Testing Materials)

Statutory Building Laws

Regulations formulated by jurisdictions on an as-needed basis, often without a thorough study of the end result. Because these laws are approved based on legislative action, they tend to become out-of-date quickly and are difficult to amend.

Building codes specify minimum types of construction allowable based on occupancy, height, area limits, area separators, and provision of automatic fire suppression systems.

Examples of regulations and their effect on courthouse design follow:

Use Groups/Special Uses

Different uses have been categorized to determine their degree of fire hazard to one another. The classification of use groups becomes a factor in how they are to be separated from one another, the type of construction used, and area and height allowable for a building. Depending on the area or use group and whether a fire suppression system is provided, mixed use may be allowable. Some of the use groups found in a courthouse:

  • Assembly - Courtrooms and jury assembly rooms. A room typically is typed as an assembly space if it holds fifty or more occupants.
  • Business - Clerk's administrative offices, prosecutor's office, or public defender's office.
  • Institutional - Temporary holding cells and prisoner sally port.
  • Storage - Records storage areas, records vaults, and parking garages.
  • Exiting - The number of people a courthouse handles necessitates the need for carefully determining and locating exits.

Public seating in a courtroom allows a maximum of seven people in a single-access aisle. Seating capacity on a pew is based on one occupant per 18 inches. Some codes (e.g., BOCA) grant an exception to seven-person single-access seating by stating that the aisle must be increased 0.6 inches for each occupant over seven. Each code must be reviewed carefully to determine allowable seating capacity and aisle widths. Rooms with an occupant load of fifty or more, or where travel distance exceeds 75 feet, are to have a minimum of two exits.

Fire Restrictive Construction

The use of synthetic and wood finishes in court­ houses is regulated by codes according to their flame spread. All materials used for interior finish and trim must be tested in accordance withASTM E84-Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials.

Fire Protection Systems

Model codes specify where and what types of fire protection systems are required. The premise for these systems is based on the use groups, height, and whether the structure is classified as a high-rise building (over 75 feet tall). Various types of systems that may be employed:

  • Automatic sprinkler systems
  • Smoke and heat detection systems
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Dry chemicals

Code Considerations for Existing Buildings

Depending upon the percentage of an existing building that is undergoingrenovation, the building may or may not have to be brought up to full compliance with the code.