When designing a project — any building or space — architects are tasked with the responsibility and purpose to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. It is inherent in every decision we, and our team of consultants, make. From the materials used to the physical comfort of the interior environment to the lighting, everything we design is through the lens of protecting the public. It is the most important thing we do.
Chief among the three core responsibilities is safety, most importantly, FIRE safety. The development of today’s building codes and fire regulations arose out of the loss of life from fire-related disasters, most notably the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 in Chicago where 575 people died.
These codes and regulations mandate a minimum standard for the design and construction of commercial and residential structures. Their development has led to the use of fire-resistant building materials, fire escapes, fire sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, and protected “means of egress” to permit the safe and efficient exit of occupants from a building in the event of a fire. This can be a principal determinant to the overall design and cost of a building as all these factors must be balanced with the intended use.
Here are the three main code-related design factors an architect must consider for any building:
There are varying code requirements for different types of structures depending on 1) what activity occurs within, 2) the number of occupants working or residing inside, and 3) how large in area or height in stories. This varies from a small, single-family house for residential use, to a large one-story commercial warehouse storing materials, or a multi-story office building with hundreds of occupants. Based on these primary criteria, the code guides the design to ensure the building remains structurally sound and that there are sufficient, protected pathways to allow all occupants to exit quickly without injury.
Once the size and capacity of the building are determined, the code prescribes what materials and systems are needed to keep the fire from spreading, creating excessive smoke, and preventing the structure from premature failure. This ensures there is enough time and protection for occupants to exit and that the materials do not contribute to the overall lethality of the event. In a small building constructed of wood, this may only require fire-rated drywall to protect the structure as it may take only a few minutes for the occupants to exit. In a large high-rise building, it may require concrete columns and floors, a sprinkler system, multiple fire-protected stairwells, emergency power backup, and smoke evacuation fans. This allows those on higher floors time to evacuate the building. A notable example of this combination of fire-resistive components was in the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. During the 9/11 fire, despite the 1,000-degree temperatures of the fire, the structure remained intact for more than one hour and forty-three minutes due in part to the fire-resistive material design. This level of safety allowed the majority of the occupants time to exit the building through the internal stair towers.
To ensure the public has access to and from a building, regardless of physical ability, all entrances and exits must conform to the minimum standards of the American Disability Act. Barrier-free access may be provided through ramps, sufficient width for corridors and doors, proper hardware to allow for ease of operation, and areas of refuge (fire-safe locations in multistory structures where occupants who need assistance can wait to be evacuated). The building code determines how many exits are required to allow for the safe and orderly evacuation of all occupants. It further specifies how wide and far apart the exits must be, if dead-end corridors are permitted, the type and location of emergency lighting and signage to illuminate the path of egress, and what fire-resistive materials should be used. In the confusion of a building fire, amidst all of the chaos and smoke, occupants need a clearly defined and direct way to exit the building in the minimum amount of time.
As a result of some noteworthy and catastrophic fires, standardized building codes and fire regulations were conceived, implemented, and updated throughout the past 120 years. The insurance industry helped push these minimum requirements as a way to identify, reduce, and manage risk. The codes are universal in their scope but are adopted locally by a municipality or county. Most cities enforce these codes and regulations, but some smaller towns and counties do not.
Over the years, the building code has expanded to dictate requirements for wind and snow loads, energy efficiency, plumbing fixtures, material specifications, and handicap accessibility. The current 2018 International Building Code consists of 35 chapters with over 600 pages of prescriptive requirements and guidance. Today these codes are refined by groups of fire professionals, elected officials, engineers, and a broad spectrum of others concerned with building safety.
So even though the Talking Head’s “Burning Down the House” is one of our favorites on the architectural playlist, just realize what we designers do with the help of our local building codes to help ensure the public’s health, safety, and welfare and keep your building from burning down.
If you have questions or want to know more about what architects do to help protect you and your property, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573.443.1407. Ask for Robbie Price, architect and associate.