Strategies for Fire Protection: Safer College Campuses

College campuses and dormitories are some of the most high-traffic and high-risk spaces that architects design. Many buildings on campus are accessible (and busy) around the clock, and college students don’t always follow best practices when it comes to fire safety prevention.

So how do architects incorporate fire safety into their designs?

While college campuses possess unique conditions, many of the safety solutions architects rely on for other commercial buildings can work well on campuses, too.

Best Practices for Prevention

Fire safety features should be an inherent part of building design from the beginning rather than “extras” that are added on later.

Best practices start with installing smoke detectors and automatic sprinklers in each dorm room, as well as in common areas. These seemingly basic precautions have a huge impact. Of the campus fire fatalities recorded between 2000 and 2015, smoke alarms were missing or disabled in 58%of the cases. In 85 of the fatal fires, there were no sprinklers.

And keep in mind that sprinklers aren’t just for new buildings. In 2006, for example, the University of Texas at Austin retrofitted every dormitory on campus with automatic sprinkler systems. The massive project made the university one of only two colleges in Texas with 100% sprinkler system protection in their dormitories.

Specifying smoke detectors with long-life batteries can save lives. Students will often disconnect smoke detectors to silence the beeping of a failing battery. Today, smoke detectors are available with ion batteries rated to last for 10 years.

A large number of dormitory fires take place at night, so emergency lighting is an essential component of safety design. Combine that fact with the risk of losing power, and it’s easy to see that emergency lighting is critical to making sure students can easily find their way to emergency exits.

Safety Design: Fire and Smoke Containment Solutions

Fire and smoke containment systems can save lives by buying residents enough time to escape the building. Fire containment systems keep fires from spreading past the point of origin, while smoke containment systems keep smoke out of areas that aren’t affected by the fire.

Elevator Protection

During a fire, elevators act like chimneys, funneling smoke upward toward floors that aren’t affected by the fire itself. Smoke curtains can be used to seal off elevators, preventing smoke from entering the shaft and spreading to other floors.

The architect who designed Emerson College in downtown Boston, for example, specified Smoke Guard’s M600 curtain rather than using up additional square footage with a traditional elevator lobby.

Smoke curtains roll up above the elevator door frame and are hidden above a panel that matches the room’s decor. When the curtain is needed, the panel opens and the curtain rolls down the front of the elevator without hindering the use of the elevator, ensuring that egress is still possible.

Vertical Curtains

Vertical curtains can also be used to prevent the spread of fire and contain smoke.

Smoke Guard’s M2100 vertical smoke- and fire-rated system is a solution for atrium separation, openings in walls or specialty enclosures where fire-rated protection is required.

Designers with Perkins + Will installed five of these vertical smoke curtains in the Clemson University Watt Family Innovation Center to provide smoke and fire protection in the busy atrium area.

Horizontal Curtains

Horizontal fire and smoke curtains can be used in large spaces to prevent fire and smoke from spreading from one floor to another. A curtain that deploys horizontally allows designers to compartmentalize expansive spaces, which can eliminate or reduce the need for a mechanical smoke evacuation system.

In fact, the University of Idaho designed their Innovation Center to include two of these smoke- and fire-rated horizontal curtains from Smoke Guard, to divide up the atrium space and save the University the cost of additional mechanical smoke evacuation systems.

Keeping Our Students Safe

Designing with fire and smoke protection in mind is especially crucial on college campuses and in dormitories, where residents and guests come and go at all hours of the day.

By incorporating best practices, understanding local code requirements and working with the right fire and smoke rated solutions, architects can ensure a safer college campus.

Learn more about designing for human behavior in an emergency by checking out our post here.