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Author(s): Matt Klaus. Published on November 1, 2017.

In Compliance | NFPA 13

Building use and the importance of owner’s certificates in sprinkler system design


One of the most common questions that I’m asked when I’m teaching new sprinkler system designers is “where do I start?” Most designers want to jump right into selecting sprinklers or analyzing the water supply. While those steps are certainly the meat and potatoes of the design process, the real starting point is the review of the owner’s certificate.

When we consider the key players in the design and installation of a sprinkler system, most of us jump right to engineers, designers, and installing contractors. What is often missed is that all of the work done by these individuals is based on the owner providing direction on what hazards will be present and how the building will be used. Since the owner (or a representative of the owner or project development team) is not often thought of as an integral part of the design process, the owner’s certificate is often an afterthought, and in some cases not considered at all.

One of the reasons this starting point is skipped is because many people don’t know where to look for the section in NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, that requires it. When I ask even the most seasoned designers to name at least one of the requirements found in Chapter 4 of NFPA 13, I’m often greeted by blank stares or by the sight of a lot of people looking at the ceiling in search of an answer. That’s because Chapter 4 is one of the shortest chapters in the standard and is often brushed off as it pertains to “general requirements.” While this chapter is fairly limited, it does contain the requirement for the owner to outline what will be in the building, which is critical for the development of the hazard and/or commodity assessment outlined in Chapter 5.

In many cases, the designer or engineer will simply get drawings from an architect or some other member of the design team and start reading off the room labels. They will read labels like “office space,” “conference room,” and “library,” and start assigning occupancy classes from the annex of Chapter 5. But does reading a single word off of a schematic design plan really tell the designer what is happening in that particular area of the proposed building? More likely than not, it allows designers to fill in the blanks in their own minds about what they think an “office” or “library” is. It’s these kinds of leaps in the design process that make an owner’s certificate necessary. It allows the system designer to leave their preconceptions of what an “office” is behind so they can focus on the specific office they’re being asked to protect on any given project.

Due to the lack of scrutiny over these owner’s certificates, I have seen some that offer almost no guidance and provide the designer with little to go on to assist them in accurately assigning occupancies classifications. In these instances, it is imperative that designers push back and get the information they need. If you look at the requirements of Chapter 5 and the definitions of light, ordinary, and extra-hazard occupancies, they contain concepts like material combustibility, fuel arrangement, and maximum stockpile thresholds. If the owner’s certificate does not provide sufficient information to assist the designer in applying these definitions, how can the designer feel comfortable with their final assessment? In the same way that plan reviewers must “train” designers to put plans together the way they want to see them, designers must “train” the owner to provide information in a way that allows for the most efficient and effective system design possible.

Retaining and giving the appropriate consideration to the information on the owner’s certificate can also help keep designers out of trouble. As a designer, you do not want to enter litigation having either ignored the information provided on the owner’s certificate or having received a certificate with vague or ambiguous information without having asked for additional criteria that would assist in the proper occupancy classification.

MATT KLAUS is NFPA technical services lead for fire protection engineering. Top photograph: AP/Wide World