Fire Compartmentation for Commercial Buildings

A vital element of fire safety in commercial buildings of all types, whether a warehouse or an office complex, is fire compartmentation. Fire compartmentation is the practice of dividing large areas of a building into smaller rooms or spaces.

Smaller facilities and single-story buildings may also benefit from fire compartmentation design, particularly if they have a large number of occupants or a unique building design that may slow evacuation.

If you're in the midst of new construction on a commercial building or you have an existing building you'd like to improve, compartmentation is an important design aspect to consider.

Why Fire Compartmentation Is Important

There are three reasons why fire compartmentation is important in building design: human safety, loss prevention and quicker extinguishment.

The primary concern during a fire is to get people out of the building as quickly and safely as possible because the most common reason for injury during a fire is smoke inhalation.

Smoke travels fast and can easily fill up a room. By compartmentalizing the building, you're slowing the spread of smoke through barriers. This helps keep occupants safe during evacuation and will also slow the fire itself by cutting off airflow.

Fire loss prevention and extinguishing the fire quickly are reliant on one another. Getting the fire managed and extinguished will reduce damage to the property as well as reduce injury to occupants during an evacuation.

Compartmentation breaks the building into smaller areas for firefighters and emergency personnel to manage. Unaffected areas of the building will be sealed off from the fire and smoke, while affected areas will be segmented into smaller, easier to manage sections. The more quickly a building can be compartmented, the faster firefighters can enter the building and begin to get the fire under control.

Incorporating Compartmentation in Building Design


Walls and floors are the two main features of a building that will aid in compartmentation.

Open floor plans are very popular; however, they pose a challenge compared to buildings built with more partitioning (i.e. separate walled rooms). With an open floor plan, it's best to focus on fire barriers around the exits as this will help protect occupants during evacuation and allow firefighters to get into the building faster.

More complex buildings, either those that are very large or those that are multi-story, are generally easier to work with. For multi-story buildings, each floor should be able to be sealed off from one another.

Elevators between floors are particularly key in compartmentation as the airflow within the elevator shaft will pull smoke up to floors above it unless there is a barrier in place to stop the flow of smoke.

Floors and walls between the main areas that will function as compartments must be fire resistant. Fire resistance is measured by how long the walls, floor or other structural barriers will resist damage when directly exposed to flames, how well they insulate against the transfer of heat and finally how long they will stand before collapsing.

Fire resistance is measured from 30 minutes up to 4 hours.

Compartmentation Solutions for Existing Buildings


Ideally, fire compartmentation would be included in the design of a new building during construction. However, if compartmentation wasn’t discussed when a building was created, there are still plenty of retrofitting options available.

Fire and smoke barriers (curtains) can be installed post-construction. For maximum protection, even buildings with permanent compartmentation should install fire and smoke barriers.

Fire and smoke curtains are extremely useful barriers and are flexible in how they can be used. The majority of these curtains require very little remodeling to install and can either stand alone or rely on existing doorways and staircases.

These curtains are housed within the ceiling and positioned over a doorway, staircase or elevator door. When linked to a smoke detection system, the curtain housing will open and the curtain deploys to create a barrier.

For example, elevators pose a significant risk during a fire. Why? Because the air flow in an elevator shaft can pull smoke from one floor up the shaft to other floors, spreading smoke inhalation and damage problems. In order to control smoke, you must be able to seal off doors.

Traditionally, this was done by building an enclosed lobby surrounding the elevators. However, incorporating an enclosed lobby requires a very invasive reconstruction of the building if it wasn't included in the original build. By using smoke curtains over top of the elevator doors, you can seal them off and still meet IBC requirements.

Other types of curtain-style barriers include vertical, horizontal and perimeter curtains. Fire and smoke curtain barriers are all code-compliant and work to seal off doorways (vertical) and open spaces between floors in atriums (horizontal).

As mentioned earlier, open floor plans are particularly difficult when it comes to compartmentation. When you have an open floor plan, you want a perimeter curtain. They don't require corner posts, so they are the perfect solution for compartmentation in open spaces.

Curtain barriers can be either fire- and/or smoke-resistant. Dedicated fire curtains protect against high heat and flames while dedicated smoke curtains focus on blocking smoke. If you need both, hybrid curtains offer a balance between fire protection and smoke control.

Protecting Your Business With Compartmentation

Buildings that are still in the design process should be reviewed by an architect experienced with compartmentation and fire safety. Every reputable architect or contractor will be able to create a building that meets codes, but the knowledge of a fire expert can make a significant difference.

If you're looking to improve an existing building, installation of fire and smoke curtains should be considered a necessity rather than a luxury. They will provide you with peace of mind knowing your building and its occupants are effectively protected from smoke and heat exposure in the event of a fire.

For more information on the use of fire and smoke curtains to aid in building compartmentation, contact a Smoke Guard representative.