Designing for Maximum Floor Space in Commercial Buildings

By 2050, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that we will need 126.1 billion square feet of commercial building floor space, which represents a 39% increase from the available floor space today.

But it’s not enough to keep designing building commercial properties the way we have been. From open concept design to wood-frame high rises and repurposed industrial spaces, today’s modern commercial buildings provide a unique set of challenges when it comes to fire safety. Although the goal is always to keep occupants safe, sometimes the solutions are not as simple as basic fire code compliance.

Let’s look at some of the common trends in commercial building design and construction, and the hurdles they present when it comes to keeping tenants safe. In order for fire safety planning to be successful, it needs to be incorporated from the earliest parts of the design stage, and we need to look at the building as a whole, both as it is now and how it could be used in the future.

Open Concept Design

These days, with soaring energy costs, design is all about energy efficiency. Programs like LEED and WELL award points for open spaces with lots of natural lighting. And while these open concept spaces are beautiful and sought after, they create a whole new set of challenges when it comes to fire safety engineering.

One of the problems with open concept design is that it makes it easy to change the space—and the resulting fire safety requirements—with a minimum amount of planning and construction. Whereas for a traditional commercial floor plan, reconfiguring the space involves knocking down or installing walls, a modern space can be repurposed with a few new desks and dividers.

One solution is to use Performance-Based Design (PBD). Rather than designing for individual code requirements like the number of exits, PBD looks at the space as a whole and develops fire prevention and control techniques that will work even as its use changes. You can find more information about PBD and fire protection here, but steps include:

  • Set clear fire protection goals.
  • Gather information related to the intended use, number of occupants and other hazards.
  • Use computer models to create fire scenarios.
  • Present solutions to the authorities.
  • Document everything including assumptions, scenarios, permits received and limitations applied.
  • Plan for ongoing compliance and performance assessments.

Wood-Frame High Rises

For a long time, concrete has been the go-to construction material for commercial buildings. A study of demolition debris in Florida showed one non-residential building was 82% concrete by weight. But as the cost of building materials climb, and owners look for more sustainably-built facilities, wood construction is coming back into fashion.

Wood has several benefits: It’s a renewable resource and requires less energy in its production than other materials like concrete and steel. However, it also has a reputation for being great fuel in a fire. But advances in engineered timber mean that a fire may not be the immediate end of your timber high rise like you may think.

The fire engineering community has done a lot of research into fire safety in timber buildings and the results are surprising. In the event of a fire, the outer layers of timber burn and then turn to char. This char protects the center portion of the wood and delays combustion. With the right fire control measures in place, a timber building can be as safe as a steel or concrete one.

Changing Intended Use


With available greenspace dwindling, more and more commercial buildings are springing up in retrofitted industrial spaces or using non-traditional building materials like repurposed shipping containers. But these kinds of spaces weren’t originally designed for extended human occupation, particularly not large groups of people, and so builders may need to get creative when it comes to fire safety.

When working with older buildings or changing a building’s use, builders will often run into challenges related to ventilation or building materials that aren’t used anymore, like asbestos. Installing a fully code-compliant fire protection system may get costly and time-consuming if it also involves a full ventilation retrofit or asbestos abatement.

Here too, PBD may become useful. Finding solutions that meet an old building’s new use and that are also acceptable to local authorities can be difficult, but the result is a safe space that won’t run into added expenses and unexpected delays during renovation. Some of those possible solutions could include:

  • Extra sprinklers to make sure the entire space is covered.

  • Fire containment systems like elevator curtains or horizontal curtains to close off multi-story open spaces.

  • Setting smoke detectors to activate at lower levels of smoke.

Modern commercial space construction is as varied as the businesses these buildings will one day house. For more information on how Smoke Guard’s smoke and fire control systems can help keep occupants safe in your next commercial building project, visit our website.