Educational + Institutional Occupancies
How colleges and universities can demonstrate the value of the new NFPA 3
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011
By Paul Dunphy
HARVARD UNIVERSITY HAS BEEN very busy over the last 10 years building and renovating research facilities, classrooms, dormitories, parking garages, and central utility plants. Some of the projects are complex and large, and include high-rise buildings with several levels below grade. In my role as an electrical inspector and compliance coordinator for the university, I’ve been engaged from beginning to end (and beyond) with each project. It’s from this perspective that I’ve become a staunch advocate for integrated testing of the fire and life safety systems on all of the university’s new building projects and for most of the more involved renovation projects. These are the kinds of processes covered by the new NFPA 3, Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems.
In fact, I believe that colleges and universities are in an ideal position to demonstrate the real value of NFPA 3. As these institutions expand their physical resources and infrastructure in a variety of ways, life safety and risk management continue to be critical operational concerns. All members of the university community, be they students or families sleeping in a high-rise residential complex or lab professors working in the bowels of a research building, must be safe under any circumstance.
Commissioning and testing are also natural components of modern design and construction practices. Many of the new structures going up on campuses across the country are highly complex creations, designed and built to new specifications, codes, and standards. Life safety and fire protection systems are also more complex. Addressable fire alarm systems and building automation systems, for example, must work together to control a variety of inputs and outputs to interconnected systems such as smoke control fans and stair pressurization fans. What works one day may not work the next if vendors modify an individual system.
Compounding these issues is the fact that construction today is often fast-tracked, with move-in dates set in concrete. Deadlines and the bottom line can become the focus for project managers and builders, and life safety testing can take an inadvertent back seat — a problem building officials, insurance companies, and building owners recognize. As a result, universities are recognizing the value of commissioning, which can be applied to prove that building systems are designed and built to operate in an efficient manner — or, if they aren’t, to determine where the systems can be improved to ensure optimal life safety for occupants. NFPA 3 provides us with a document that can be used to essentially take a new building out for a test drive.
Life safety testing and beyond
This is the kind of document that would have come in handy on a project I was involved in several years ago. In 2007, I worked with a Harvard project manager to thoroughly test the systems of a new theatre on campus. The scenario we outlined mimicked an actual fire at a corporate high-rise office building here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which started in a transformer vault and quickly developed into a very dangerous smoke situation for the occupants.
Our plan was to set off a smoke bomb in the below-grade vault, which would initiate a smoke detector and signal the integrated systems to activate. After checking every moving part on normal power, we shut down the main building power by operating the shunt trip key switches in the fire command center. Then we re-checked the building again to make sure that all the systems and moving parts were operating as they should.
To pull off a test such as this, we needed a riser drawing of the stair pressurization and smoke exhaust systems. The drawing had a sequence-of-operation matrix, and each fan and damper was numbered. An electrical riser drawing was also necessary to make a list of the equipment that we needed to check when we were in power failure mode. Documents in hand, we formed a test team made up of various project contractors and Harvard staff. (This kind of test, by the way, is an ideal time to train building operations staff.) Our test ultimately uncovered a few installation glitches and design issues, and it took a few days to get all the interfaces working correctly.
The experience was an eye-opener. We found that communication between contractors and vendors had to improve; specifically, the fire alarm system contractor and building automation system contractor needed to share input and output commands more accurately. I developed a two-page integrated life safety testing guide based on the theater test, and it didn’t take long for the university to embrace the concept.
In 2008, I attended a seminar about a proposed standard called NFPA 3, Commissioning of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems. I liked what the presenter, Maurice Pilette, who was chair of the NFPA 3 Technical Committee, had to say, so I spoke with him about what we were doing at Harvard. A few weeks later, he invited me to sit in on a task force meeting for NFPA 3. They were working towards a great document that was long overdue.
I’m not a big fan of the term "commissioning," as it can have different meanings and applications, so I asked the group to consider adding "integrated testing" to the title to get people’s attention. Shortly thereafter, I applied for membership on the technical committee and was accepted. I learned that developing a document by consensus takes time and patience. I’ve since been contacted by other universities who are looking for information about my involvement and participation on the technical committee.
The creation of NFPA 3 is a giant step toward making buildings safer, but commissioning as a recommended practice cannot be enforced by an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). That’s why I’m also a proponent of separating the integrated testing functions, with their quantifiable relationships among systems, and making them their own standard, one that can be enforced by an AHJ. The NFPA Standards Council will consider pursuing NFPA 4, Integrated Testing of Fire and Life Safety Systems, which would further benefit universities and their contractors by helping them better understand the technical processes involved in a new building and its systems.
I’m confident that Harvard would embrace the notion of NFPA 4 because it is critical to life safety. I have been very successful in moving the general concept of commissioning and testing forward at the university, from the first integrated testing at the theatre to much larger and more complex projects.
Just working from a draft version of NFPA 3 helped us define what systems needed to be included. Large academic and lab facilities built over underground parking garages, for example, have been through commissioning, functional operation, pre-functional testing, and fully tested in an integrated fashion. We have test documents and checklists that can be used and re-used for periodic integrated testing as the university sees fit.
With the new NFPA 3 in hand, the university is planning to do retro-integrated life safety testing on a high-rise residential complex built over an underground garage. This will give us a good idea how the building performs a number of years after its construction. The process involves planning and scheduling to minimize disruption and inconvenience for the occupants. Participants include university engineers, a team of Harvard fire safety trades and facilities operations personnel, the original engineering consulting firm, and an "independent integrated testing agent" — a new position defined by NFPA 3 as "a person or entity identified by the owner who plans, schedules, documents, coordinates, and implements the integrated testing of fire and life safety systems and their associated subsystems."
Because the university has successfully implemented the process, we led the contractor community into working with us — another key example of how NFPA 3 can work for any building owner willing to embrace it. Contractors were somewhat hesitant at first, because the extra testing meant expending extra time and resources, but they were willing to play ball. Once engaged in the process, they showed a great deal of interest, since it benefited them to learn whether their products worked as designed.
"This is good stuff," one sub-contractor told me not too long ago, while we were working together on an integrated testing project. "How come we never did this before?"
Paul Dunphy is an electrical inspector and compliance coordinator at Harvard University and a member of the NFPA 3 Technical Committee.