Barbara Spalding, associate director of Campus Fire Safety, reviews fire sprinkler plans.
Off-Campus Fire Safety
How Wesleyan University meets the challenge of making its unique student housing fire safe.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2008
By Ed Comeau
While Wesleyan University is known as a small, prestigious liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut, it also distinguishes itself in its unique approach to student housing. The school owns a large amount of housing stock to accommodate the student body practice of “program” houses, which are homes where students with a shared interest may live. Like many other campuses, Wesleyan has traditional residence halls and Greek housing, but it also has the Asian House, the Film House, the French House, and The Outhouse for students interested in camping.
WESLEYAN CAMPUS MAP
On this map of the Wesleyan campus, undergraduate housing is denoted by dark orange buildings, graduate housing by dark purple.
A row of houses owned by Wesleyan University.
When piping and sprinkler heads were exposed below 7 feet, sprinkler guards were installed to minimize damage.
The contractors became very proficient at going to the homes and completing the installations quickly, concealing the piping where possible.
A strip of insulation covers sprinkler piping in the unheated attic. Heat rises through holes drilled in the floorboards and is trapped under the insulation.
A typical sprinkler riser in the basement of a Wesleyan house.
The acquisition of homes began in the 1970s, when Wesleyan began purchasing housing surrounding the campus for upper-classmen to live in. It now owns approximately 130 wood-frame, one- and two-family houses that are home to more than 570 of its 2,700 students.
“Wesleyan’s philosophy of progressively independent housing is somewhat unique in that most of our seniors live in university-owned houses,” says Joyce Topshe, associate vice-president for Facilities. “Even before they become seniors, sophomores may choose to live in a program house with students with like interests. Students often state this as one of the many reasons they chose Wesleyan.”
Providing fire safety for this many buildings is an incredible challenge and one that the school has undertaken aggressively through fire detection, suppression, and education. But this wasn’t always the case.
Bringing about change
In 2000, three freshmen were killed and more than 50 people were injured in a residence hall fire at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. This fire sent shock waves through the higher-education community, and, as a result, schools across the nation started taking a much closer look at the level of fire safety provided on their campuses.
“The Seton Hall University fire was a wake-up call and [Wesleyan University] said, ‘We need to do something here,’” says Lewis LaRosa, fire marshal for the Middletown Fire Department.
“There was a time when we would go [to the school] and say that it would help if you did this or if you installed that,” he says. “It was a head-butting, dollars-and-cents issue. Now, we sit down with them and when we make a suggestion regarding making a change, they are very agreeable to making those changes.”
“We’ve been very fortunate to have never experienced a tragic loss due to fire at Wesleyan,” says Topshe. “The reality is that we were just lucky.
“When I joined Wesleyan in 2000, our fire-safety program was not well defined and was under-resourced. One of my first hires was Barbara Spalding, who is an expert in fire safety. Barbara worked quickly to identify our greatest risks and to map out a plan for fire-safety education and capital improvements,” she says.
Each year, a team of facilities managers meets to set priorities for maintenance projects.
“In 2005, the team decided that fire and life safety was the highest priority,” says Spalding, associate director of Campus Fire Safety. The initial proposal put forward to the university was that a bulk of the money allocated for physical plant improvements, approximately $5 million, be allocated to sprinkler a residence hall that housed 520 students.
“The senior staff realized that it was an important project but felt that it wasn’t a good idea to use all of the money for that one project so, instead, a bond proposal was put forward,” says Spalding. This resulted in money to upgrade fire protection in housing units all across campus.
Given the large number of houses to consider, the university decided to look at units that housed five or more people, based on a proposed Middletown ordinance that designated these units as rooming houses that required a higher level of fire protection. When the ordinance was finally passed, the five-bed rule was no longer a requirement, but Wesleyan decided to continue using it.
In the summer of 2006, 17 houses were equipped with residential sprinkler systems and of these, 12 also got new fire alarm systems. Carbon monoxide detectors connected to the fire alarm system were also provided. In addition to retrofitting the existing houses, the university constructed two new buildings—one a duplex and the other a triplex—that are fully sprinklered and have monitored fire alarm systems.
For the project, the university relied on NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes , and NFPA 13R, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Residential Occupancies Up To and Including Four Stories in Height.
The pace continued in the summer of 2007 when 23 buildings were equipped with NFPA 13D residential sprinkler systems. Seventeen of them got new fire alarm systems, as well.
“We went with 13D systems with 2-inch [5-centimeter] water service,” says Spalding. “Almost everything goes down to a 1-inch [2.5-centimeter] distribution system in the house, and the calculations would not have changed significantly between a 13D and a 13R system.”
One of the biggest challenges Spalding faced was an 11-week construction schedule to get all of the work completed. Finding a contractor with experience working in a residential environment on a scale large enough to get the houses done in time was difficult. The first year, Wesleyan used two contractors, one of whom was excellent, according to Spalding.
“[The contractor] understood that these are houses, and you can’t treat them like a typical construction site,” she says. “For the second year, we didn’t even bid the project. We used the same contractor, and they guaranteed prices in 2007 based on 2006.”
One of the first problems that arose was a lack of architectural drawings for all the houses, so the contractor measured them and developed detailed drawings that benefited both Wesleyan and the installers tremendously.
“The biggest benefit is that we saw the houses through our own eyes,” says Jay Morello, president of Central Systems, Inc.
Often, field conditions don’t match the drawings. Because the contractors were on site, however, they were able to identify opportunities to route piping through stacked closets or walls. Wesleyan benefited by getting complete architectural drawings of their houses.
Another challenge was the ages of the houses, which varied tremendously, requiring creative solutions when installing piping. While the goal was to conceal the piping as much as feasible, doing so was often not possible.
A number of the houses had attics, which made installing sprinklers in the second-floor rooms easier, but New England attics usually aren’t heated. To remedy this situation, the contractor drilled holes in the floor boards where the sprinkler piping ran and covered the piping with insulation, trapping the heat that came up from below. This tactic is contained in the Appendix to NFPA 13D, says Morello.
“A lot of the challenge was to design a piping system that worked aesthetically with the house without it looking like a boiler room,” he says. “We really went the extra mile to hide the piping wherever we could, and Wesleyan appreciated that effort.”
In one case, installing a sprinkler in the middle of a living room on the first floor was necessary. Fortunately, there was a closet over the spot on the second floor, so a drop was made through the closet from piping in the attic and into the living room’s ceiling.
While NFPA 13D would not have required them, dry-pipe sidewall sprinklers were also installed on both open and enclosed porches.
So far, none of the sprinklers installed has activated as a result of a fire or tampering. One reason is that concealed sprinklers are used wherever possible, and any unconcealed sprinkler installed less than 7 feet (2 meters) from the floor is covered with a sprinkler guard. Another reason is the student education program that tells them that if they tamper with the sprinklers “they will have the most disgusting water flowing all over them,” says Spalding.
Preparation and planning
Detailed planning was a key factor that made the project go smoothly within the short time available to complete the work. The contractor started measuring the houses and designing the sprinkler layout well in advance and prepared for a large increase in the volume of work.
“The second year, we did 17 houses, but the third year, they overwhelmed us with 23,” says Morello. In preparation, the contractor spent the previous winter purchasing and outfitting an enclosed 28-foot (8.5-meter) trailer that contained all the material and tools they needed for a crew of six people.
“We would move the trailer from house to house, and it really expedited the job,” said Morello.
The preparation process also included bringing in the fire department early and keeping them involved throughout.
“They bring us in very early, typically in the planning stages, and we try to stay involved from beginning to end,” says LaRosa. Having this close working relationship makes it possible to streamline the review, installation, and inspection process to ensure the projects stay on track.
The housing setup at Wesleyan may not be typical of many schools across the country, in that the university owns its off-campus housing. However, many U.S. college students live in privately owned off-campus housing, typically one- and two-family, wood-frame houses. Since Wesleyan owned its off-campus housing, it could provide the homes with a higher level of safety than would normally be expected.
In doing these projects, the university learned that retrofitting a large number of buildings, on budget and in a short period of time is indeed possible. As with so many projects, extensive planning and preparation, as well as close coordination among the customer, the contractor, and the authority having jurisdiction, helped ensure its success.
Ed Comeau is the former chief fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association and is currently the publisher of Campus Firewatch.