How to Incorporate Fire Protection Into Your Flexible Design

Inspired partly by the desire to protect our environment and partly by the need to maximize a building’s life cycle, architects, designers and building owners alike are pushing the envelope of flexible design. However, innovations in flexible design can make it difficult to navigate fire codes, which tend to be very strict rules based on exact situations and uses. Flexible design designs for an uncertain future, making it hard to apply rules built for an exact situation.

What Is Flexible Design?

Flexible design flips the traditional design process on its head. Typically, architects and designers make decisions throughout the design process (what materials will be used, how the building will meet relevant codes, etc.), based on what they know about the building’s purpose. Each choice narrows the range of options available in the future. For example, once walls are built, it limits the use of the space for things such as an open office area without time, money and effort to remove those walls in the future.

However, architects who use a flexible design approach acknowledge that they can’t anticipate every future need. Neither can they predict future code changes. So, in order to extend the building’s lifespan and reduce the chances that it will someday need to be torn down and replaced with a new building, they leave as many decisions as possible open for future users.

The Challenges

Most building codes weren’t written with either flexibility or the future in mind. They were developed for one purpose: safety. Therefore, building codes tend to be very prescriptive, with exacting rules for specific situations and uses.

That’s what makes designing for flexibility such a challenge. Because the intended use of a space plays such a huge role in determining which building codes apply, architects and designers who want to leave options open have a tough time knowing which codes to use.

Using the strictest codes for everything is one option, but that can add considerable costs to the building.

The Solution

For a lot of architects and designers, the solution to flexible design code challenges is Performance-Based Design (PBD). Performance-Based Design is the process of adjusting variables to accomplish a code’s intended purpose rather than adhering to “letter of the law” prescriptive codes.

Performance-Based Design and Fire Safety

The prescriptive approach to fire safety focuses on things like number of exits and the distance to one of those exits from the farthest point in the room. But prescriptive solutions can seem rather arbitrary. For instance, a conference room with an occupancy of 49 needs one exit. But with the addition of just one more person, bringing the occupancy to 50, fire codes mandate two exits.

PBD tries to eliminate those arbitrary lines in the sand by focusing on what the code is trying to accomplish. Obviously, the intent is to make sure building occupants have enough time to safely escape. Performance-Based Design asks: “Other than measuring the distance from Point A to the closest exit, how can we accomplish that?”

Answers include things like:

  • An increased number of automatic sprinklers.
  • Fire containment systems to protect building occupants from smoke and fire.
  • Setting smoke detectors to activate at lower levels of smoke.

At its simplest, Performance-Based Design is about figuring out the right mix of relevant factors to achieve the desired solution.

Making Performance-Based Design Work


While PBD seems custom-made for flexible design enthusiasts, that doesn’t mean architects and designers can just use their best judgment. There are still rules to follow, and they’re based on high-level science. Using PBD techniques can be harder than using prescriptive rules, but you get buildings with more flexibility and longer life cycles.

Tips for Successful Performance-Based Design

Best practices will vary based on how you’re using PBD, including best practices for fire safety. To be successful, architects and designers should:

  • Start by referring to existing resources. Lately, U.S. agencies have been addressing Performance-Based Design in their codes and guidelines, such as The International Performance Code, options within the NFPA Building Construction and Safety Code, the NFPA Life Safety Code and the SFPE Engineering Guide to Performance-Based Fire Protection Analysis and Design of Buildings.

  • Establish your fire safety goals. Before you can suggest alternative methods, you have to understand what the original, prescriptive code was trying to accomplish. The goals may include everything from life safety and property protection to mission continuity and protecting the environment.

  • Gather any other relevant information. This includes things like intended use, number of occupants and potential hazards.

  • Use the data to create a fire scenario for computer modeling. Computer programslike Analysis of Smoke Control Systems (ASCOS) and Calculation of Detector Activation Time (DETACT) can illustrate how fire and/or smoke would actually behave in certain situations, giving designers the opportunity to come up with appropriate solutions.

  • Present the solution to authorities with jurisdiction. They’ll look at the data, the modeling and your solution to determine whether fire code goals will be met.

  • Document, document, document. Since PBD solutions aren’t specified in official fire codes, it’s essential to document all of the data, assumptions, simulations and models, that led to the choice and approval of the building’s fire safety solutions. That documentation will be a valuable tool for both future building owners and future code enforcement agents.

  • Be ready to demonstrate ongoing compliance. Some jurisdictions require that Performance-Based fire safety solutions demonstrate their performance on an annual basis, so be ready to respond when asked.

Performance-Based Design can be a lot of work up front, but it’s also the key to designing flexible buildings that pass fire codes and meet fire safety standards. In fact, PBD fire safety solutions often outperform the fire code’s prescriptive solutions, because they consider more variables than when applying a one-size-fits-all answer.

Flexible design is the future of architecture, and Performance-Based Design will help architects and designers achieve this future without compromising fire safety.