One University, Two Projects, Great Solutions

Case Study: University of Michigan

The University of Michigan is more than 200 years old, founded 20 years before Michigan itself even became a state. In the ensuing two centuries since the university opened its doors, the campus in Ann Arbor has grown to include 584 major buildings with a total square footage of about 34 million square feet. 

From the President’s House, built in 1837, to the new Biological Sciences building, built in 2018, maintaining and expanding a campus to accommodate more than 44,000 students and nearly 45,000 faculty and staff is on ongoing evolution. It requires facility operators, contractors and architects to stay on top of current building codes and safety regulations.

In this case study, we look at two recent building projects at the University of Michigan—the addition of the Alfred Taubman Wing to Michigan’s Art & Architecture building and the construction of the new Biological Sciences building. Both projects presented unique challenges when it came to fire safety planning.

Alfred Taubman Wing of the University of Michigan Art & Architecture Building

This 36,000 square-foot addition was opened in 2017. The Taubman wing provides studio space as well as other areas for collaboration and group projects including: 

  • 8 Capstone Rooms

  • 3 Meeting Rooms

  • 2 Lounges

  • Reading Room

The centerpiece of the building is a 5,700 square foot commons, designed to host conferences, final presentations and other special events.

The Challenge

A multi-purpose space like the Taubman wing requires specific fire safety planning. While the central staircase provides an attractive design feature and focal point for special events, it also makes a convenient channel for fire and smoke to spread, while limiting potential egress for building occupants during an emergency.

The Solution

Designers used a perimeter atrium curtain to provide fire and smoke protection at the top of a staircase. Perimeter curtains are ideally suited for staircases as they don’t need supports at the corners or a track to descend.

The Smoke Guard M4000 perimeter curtain can be customized to fit any large space, including central staircases like the one at the Taubman wing. When deployed, the curtain can cover openings up to a drop of 15 feet and a length of 220 feet. These dimensions are highly adjustable, and the curtain’s panels can be joined at angles ranging from 30- to 150-degrees.

Perimeter staircase curtains are deployed in the event of a fire alarm to protect staircases, effectively blocking the migration of smoke and fire as well as giving occupants a chance to safely exit the building. Perimeter curtains can be raised and lowered to individual floors to allow people to enter the staircase and leave when they reach the ground floor.

Biological Sciences Building

The University of Michigan Biological Sciences building, the newest building on campus in Ann Arbor, is a 312,000 square foot complex that houses laboratories, classrooms and a natural history museum. 

The unique exterior, designed by Ennead Architects, consists of three “cubes” connected by two central atria. The interior of the 295,000 square foot main facility includes: 

  • 92 Research Offices

  • 76 Research Laboratories 

  • 4 General Classrooms

  • 4 Large Conference Rooms

  • 4 Small Conference Rooms

  • Large Interaction Areas

  • Small Seating Areas

  • Greenhouse

  • Growth Rooms and Growth Chambers

  • Research Support

  • Natural History Museum

  • Specimen Artifact Collections

  • Dining Facilities

Beyond the showpiece atria, the Biological Sciences building includes a number of small interconnected laboratory facilities meant to foster innovation, intimacy and collaboration.

The Challenge 

One of the key features of the Biological Sciences building is two atriums designed to unify the building and provide visual connectivity. The vast amount of open space, combined with the corridors between lab facilities, requires careful fire protection planning to facilitate evacuation and limit the spread of smoke and fire.

One of the critical challenges in managing smoke and fire in large open spaces, like the atriums in the Biological Sciences building, is the mechanical systems required to facilitate smoke evacuation. Smoke evacuation systems need to remove a carefully calculated amount of air from spaces like these, far more than they would if the system were designed to only serve one floor or a more contained area.

The Solution 

Vertical fire curtains were used to partition the open space around the atria. These curtains deploy when fire or smoke is detected and are rated for fire control for up to two hours. The M2500 vertical fire curtain is available in a number of sizes and can be installed in sequence to protect larger areas, like the Biological Sciences building.

For this project, Ennead worked with the Smoke Guard team to design and install over 30 fire curtains throughout the facility, including the atria. And the benefits of using fire curtain systems like these are clearly quantifiable. 

According to the architect, every dollar spent on fire curtains saves more than $4 on mechanical costs. So by spending $130,000 in fire curtains at the Biological Sciences building, the university saved themselves nearly $450,000 in costs on the mechanical system. 

Planning for the Future

As the University of Michigan continues to grow, building staff and future design and construction partners continue to look for innovative ways to combine modern architecture and green building techniques with effective and customizable strategies to keep students and staff safe in the event of an emergency.

Smoke and fire curtains are a proven approach to managing smoke and fire migration. Fully customizable to meet a building’s design needs, they also have the potential to protect both the building and the people inside as well as simplify and streamline other aspects of the building’s design, like the mechanical system, thereby saving the building operator money over the long term.

For more case studies, visit the Smoke Guard website.