Bring on the Heat: Designing for School Safety

Blocks Don’t Burn  

Engineers and architects choose to specify concrete masonry units (or more commonly called, CMU’s) for their variety of beneficial material properties. According to ASTM International, this low-maintenance material is ensured to meet all minimum design expectations. Although block options vary by type, numerous tests have proven that CMU structures can be reliable for their compressive strength. The composition of coarse and fine particle material during the CMU’s manufacture provides a more waterproof wall, and appropriately constructing the junctions and connections between blocks will increase acoustic control within the building. Manufacturers are even offering a range of shape, size and color options to meet the ever-evolving market.

These are the more common qualities we think about when looking at Type III building materials. A client wants to be assured that her house has a solid foundation, or that his new commercial spaces will be designed with top-notch acoustic performance. While these are totally realistic expectations, one thing we may forget about or take for granted is this material’s property of fire resistance… concrete masonry blocks don’t burn.

It is for this reason that many schools are designed with CMU’s to achieve the maximum possible safety factor for all building occupants. An interview with Greg Klaiber, Director of Emergency Management at Northwestern University, sheds light on fire safety in educational facilities.

School Safety 

As a retired Fire Chief of Evanston, Illinois, Klaiber seems to take high interest in protecting against the danger of fire. When asked specifically about the benefits of using masonry to design and build schools, he responded with advocacy:

“Yeah, I believe there are significant benefits in materials like brick, concrete, stone and mortar. They don’t burn, so they’re not going to contribute as a fuel for fire. Secondly, masonry, concrete, mortar, etcetera will contain a fire to where it has started. So it would kind of compartmentalize and hold the fire there. Of course all that construction likely has sprinkler systems in place so that will further refine it until firefighters arrive.”

Part of keeping a school safe involves the actual building design, apart from the type of construction materials used. Safety in a school has to be number one priority in the world that we currently live in. Klaiber says “We all want a beautiful facility that looks nice and is aesthetically pleasing, but the primary considerations should be the safety and life safety of all those who are going to be using that school every day… the students, teachers and all staff.” Building code regulations such as number of required exits, distance between exits, and maximum egress travel distance will highly influence the life safety plans for a building. Being able to evacuate the building as quickly as possible is ensuring safety for a variety of reasons, not only fire emergencies.

Klaiber shares similar thoughts on additional steps to ensuring school safety, “Well I think a design of the facility itself requires making sure you know there is free flowing egress within the facility, so that when occupants need to leave in an emergency evacuation there is no encumbrance to that. They can exit the facility as quick as possible, because you want to have a safe place not just for fire safety issues but also for shelter.” Sadly, with the number of school mass shootings increasing each year, basic protection is a design priority. “You want to be able to conceal and hide behind walls that can’t be penetrated by ballistic rifles or guns… and masonry offers that as well as concrete, versus drywall made with sheet rock.”

Taking Precaution 

Due to the aforementioned building code requirements, any new construction must comply in order to be awarded permits and pass inspections. Klaiber explains his experience with the design process when it comes time to take safety precautions:

“Well, I have been intimately involved in the design process for school construction you know, having been a former Fire Chief in the city of Evanston. There are a number of schools that were constructed while in this position and I’m sure other projects are very similar to ours. We had a fire plans reviewer that worked with the contractors, construction companies, and project managers for these facilities as they were being constructed to make sure they were maintaining and complying with the local fire codes and ordinances as they pertain to fire safety. So… at each step of the process you have the fire department’s Fire Prevention Bureau reviewing all the plans prior to the building being completed.”

In addition to the layout and materiality design, life safety technology assists in providing the most desirable design resolution. Klaiber tells us, “Annual fire drills at each school are conducted with the local fire departments, but I think more and more you’re seeing as I stated earlier there’s emergency evacuation drills, and in reference to the active shooter act or acts of violence situations, schools are now being told they need to comply with emergency evacuation drills for those purposes. Not necessarily fire, but any other reasons too, which prepares students, faculty and staff to leave suddenly, or go to an area of refuge or sheltering in place. So those kinds of drills are happening and catering to all schools all over the country. Again when we talk about sheltering in place, in a school or for lockdown you know you want to find an area that’s safe and secure and can’t be penetrated.”

Thanks to the One Behind the Scenes 

Precautions like alarms, sprinkler systems, fire alarm panels, smoke detection systems, and fire extinguishers are important to take into consideration for any project, whether it’s completely new or part of renovation plans for an existing building. As Klaiber explains, it takes a variety of professionals to make any of this happen.

Whether it be the architect interpreting code for hours in attempt to maximize the safety of the design, code officials double-checking these regulations, or the contractors and fire protection professionals that oversee design and installation of these systems… someone is always behind the scenes. If you’re in or related to a field in design or construction, you’re the man (or woman) behind the curtain.

While we as professionals are not at fault for the causes of the dangers a building may encounter, it certainly is our job to protect their future at all costs, as well as the futures of the lives who will occupy them.