Building codes typically offer the best of both worlds when it comes to fire protection: they are prescriptive, requiring specific materials and methods; and, they allow for “equivalent” design solutions, enabling creative approaches to be proposed. Yet building owners often overlook the latter option, even though it enables innovative solutions that can be superior to standard practice.
The methodology for providing “equivalent” design solutions is known as performance-based design, and that concept has come a long way since Hammurabi’s Code stated in 1754 BC that “a house should not collapse and kill anybody.” The modern version originated in 1965 in France. In its purest form, it achieves the desired end without explicit dictation of the means.
The National Fire Protection Association’s standard describes equivalency as follows: “Nothing in this standard is intended to prevent the use of systems, methods, or devices of equivalent or superior quality…over those prescribed by this standard. Technical documentation shall be submitted to the authority having jurisdiction to demonstrate equivalency.”
It’s that last sentence that can dissuade property owners. Equivalent designs must be presented to the local government agency that oversees buildings, and that process may seem daunting. But as a fire protection engineer who has successfully proposed equivalent designs in New York City and beyond, I can attest to the fact that the resulting innovations can be well worth the effort.