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Author(s): Brian OConnor. Published on September 4, 2018.

In Compliance | NFPA 13

Navigating the sprinkler requirements for office pods


The trend in workplace layout seems to fluctuate between open concept and enclosed spaces, so it is convenient for offices to be able to shift layouts without having to do major renovations. One solution is the office pod, which is a pre-fabricated room or booth that can be placed within a building and allows for access to a quiet space in an otherwise noisy, open area. As office pods become more popular for use as meeting rooms, phone booths, or small offices, NFPA has received questions about whether they require fire sprinklers. As it is for most great engineering questions, the answer is “it depends.”

NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, doesn’t specifically address whether office pods should be sprinklered, but it does say, “sprinklers shall be installed throughout the premises.” The intent of this language is to ensure that the effectiveness of a sprinkler system is not compromised by a fire originating in a non-sprinklered area. This means that, when looking at whether or not to sprinkler an area according to NFPA 13, the default answer is yes, unless permitted otherwise.

NFPA 13 permits sprinklers to be omitted in certain spaces, such as areas where there is electrical or mechanical equipment, air handling units, portable wardrobe units, cabinets, and trophy cases. The caveat is that these spaces must not be intended for occupancy. Most, if not all, office pods are intended for occupancy, and therefore couldn’t apply to this exception.

Another factor to consider when trying to determine the sprinkler requirements for office pods is whether these pods would create an obstruction to sprinkler discharge or sprinkler spray development. A provision in NFPA 13 states that “sprinklers shall not be required under obstructions that are not fixed in place, such as conference tables.” Since office pods are often not fixed in place, one could argue they don’t require sprinklers. But since the example given in the standard is a conference table, which is not an occupiable enclosure, it is my opinion that this exception was not meant to be applied to office pods. Typically, office pods are occupiable space that is completely enclosed by walls and a ceiling, and can therefore be considered a room.

All of the signs point to these small structures needing sprinklers, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, that might not always be the answer. Some pods, for example, have ceilings that are connected to smoke and heat detection systems so that in the event of a fire within one of these pods, the roof opens to allow sprinkler discharge to reach the fire. Unique installations such as these could apply to the equivalency clause in NFPA 13, which allows alternative methods of protection as long as they are approved by the authority having jurisdiction.

One final aspect to consider is whether the installation of office pods would cause a change in occupancy classification. This is important because building fire and life safety systems are designed with a certain level of hazard in mind, ba sed on the occupancy classification. If that hazard level increases beyond what it was initially designed for, it could cause a major problem.

Ultimately, office pods serve a useful purpose in today’s ever-changing work environment, but they need to be installed with fire and life safety in mind. Sprinkler systems are an integral part of fire safety and need to be considered for any major changes in an office or other occupancy.

BRIAN O'CONNOR is a fire protection engineer at NFPA.