Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2017.

Built Safe

How architectural engineers and NFPA are working together to create a more resilient built environment


As innovation drives the construction of unique, sustainable structures like tall wooden buildings, a partnership between NFPA and the Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) is emerging to keep both organizations ahead of the curve when it comes to making these buildings safe.

Formed in 1998, AEI—one of nine organizations that fall under the umbrella of the American Society of Civil Engineers—aims to be the leading worldwide resource on the advancement of building design. Systems that keep buildings safe, such as fire protection and emergency communications systems, are central to the organization’s vision and are critical at a time when man-made hazards such as terrorist attacks are a very real threat to buildings and the people who occupy them. AEI has about 8,000 members, made up roughly of 65 percent professional architectural engineers and 35 percent architectural engineering students.

AEI’s 2017 conference will take place April 11–13 in Oklahoma City, and NFPA is a cooperating organization for the event; the theme of the conference is “Resilience of the Integrated Building: A Community Focus.” NFPA Journal spoke with AEI President Robert Grottenthaler about the conference, what it means to be an architectural engineer, and how he sees NFPA and AEI working together in the future.

What is architectural engineering?

A lot of people confuse it with architecture. Architecture is the conceptual design of a building to meet the needs of the owner. Architectural engineering is the designing of the systems that make the building function. It’s all about taking the design from an architect and bringing it into reality. Architectural engineering includes a lot of different disciplines, like structural engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and construction management. As an architectural engineering student, you take coursework in engineering as well as architecture, so you come out pretty well-rounded in all aspects of buildings.

Is it a common field?

It has grown in popularity. There were only nine universities that offered accredited architectural engineering degree programs when I graduated [from Penn State with an architectural engineering degree] in 1980. Now there are roughly 20. It’s not a field the general public is that familiar with because architectural engineers usually go into one of their fields of emphasis, so their title becomes mechanical engineer or structural engineer and so on.

How important are fire and life safety codes to what architectural engineers do?

As an organization, AEI is focused more on developing guidelines and best practices rather than codes themselves. That’s what NFPA does. Obviously, codes are critical in the design and construction of buildings. They all have to be designed and built to code. We have a task committee on fire protection and life safety guidelines.

Is there a need for more fire and life safety education for architectural engineers?

Yes, most definitely. With high-performing buildings, they obviously have to be very safe buildings. Fire protection systems have to be responsive in order to minimize any dangers to the people, to the contents of the building, and to the structural aspects of the building, so the building can rebound after a fire and go back to work relatively quickly. So understanding how to integrate fire protection systems in buildings is crucial. Knowing the right fire protection system for a space is crucial. We always have to think about the hazards.

The theme of AEI’s 2017 conference is “Resilience of the Integrated Building:A Community Focus.” Break that down for me, starting with your definition of an integrated building.

An integrated building integrates with the environment. It has to be friendly to the environment. It has to be one that understands the limitations of energy and the use of natural resources. It also has to be integrated within, which means all of the systems that make the building function cannot be designed in a vacuum. They have to be designed in conjunction with one another.

What makes a building resilient?

A resilient building has to have redundant, robust, integrated systems that are designed to increase the service life of buildings and to reduce their overall recovery time after exposure to various hazards. The systems are typically performance based. Incorporating and designing fire protection into complex or unusual building designs or with designs that specifically consider resiliency requires a performance-based solution.

The word “redundant” often has a negative connotation. How receptive would you say the general public and building owners are to this notion of resilient buildings?

With what’s happened with some buildings, like the World Trade Center, people are usually insistent on buildings having resilience. They want to know that it’s going to stand tall in the event of a disaster and that there’s enough time to evacuate under crisis. Otherwise, people would be hesitant to get into a high-rise building.

Is building resilience a new idea?

It is in the sense that it’s something people neglected in the past. They didn’t really think about the disasters that could occur, both natural and man-made. For example, resilient buildings today are designed so that a main column could be taken away and the loads would transfer throughout the building to keep it standing. That’s not something people planned for years ago, but after 9/11 and other events that occurred people are now thinking, “What if there’s a blast?” “What if someone gets on top of the building and puts some sort of chemical into the air system?” You have to think about that stuff now.

What are some of the challenges to constructing resilient buildings?

It can increase the cost of buildings. If you’re going to make systems redundant or integrate coexisting systems or make a system very robust, there are a lot of additional costs. Just the knowledge designers need is also a challenge. Designers need to anticipate and respond to the potential hazards of a specific building. There’s no simple, off-the-shelf solution.

Are some buildings better candidates than others for that resilient approach?

I would say certain buildings would be candidates for when resiliency is critical, like high-rise buildings in California because of earthquakes. Big stadium arenas would be, spaces where there are a lot of people gathered and that might be targets for some sort of man-made hazard. Hospitals are another category—you have patients who you can’t move really quickly, so you want to make sure that the life safety systems have some redundancy in case, for example, someone went in and tried to take out the electrical system. So yes, I think certain building types are better candidates for when resiliency is very critical.

The title of your upcoming conference includes “a community focus”—where does community involvement come in when you’re talking about resilient buildings?

We don’t want to talk about just the buildings. We want the community to be engaged and understand the importance of resiliency. The community has to work and live in these buildings, so people should have an awareness of the environment they’re in and understand the hazards that exist. Oklahoma City, for example, where the conference is being held, is very prone to earthquakes. There are experts out there who are designing buildings with resiliency in mind so they can withstand earthquakes, terrorist threats, and more.

Is there a conference highlight this year that you find particularly interesting?

Anyone attending the conference should check out the student design competition. Students from architectural engineering programs across the country compete in a challenge to develop and integrate innovative and original systems for existing facilities. Awards are given in different categories such as mechanical, which includes fire protection systems. This year’s building is a Texas Tech sports performance facility, like an arena, so the students are going to have to address aspects of security and resilience.

Looking to the future, what are some building trends AEI is keeping tabs on?

AEI is certainly looking at tall wooden buildings. The sustainability of wood is very desirable. It’s an approach that folks in Europe seem to have started and now it’s being explored in the U.S. No code says that you can’t use wood to build vertically.

Tall wooden buildings are of particular concern to fire safety experts who fear they may be more combustible than their steel and concrete counterparts.

Do you see AEI and NFPA working together to address emerging trends in building design like this one?

Definitely. AEI is very forward looking. Whether it’s tall wooden buildings or modular construction, where you build some buildings off site and then you bring them together on one site, you have to ask what this means for codes and standards. Codes and standards have to be responsive to these different innovations. AEI prides itself on being in front of the curve. We will be able to coordinate with NFPA and say, “This is what’s coming. You need to start anticipating it and start preparing your codes and standards accordingly.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Thinkstock