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The Time is Right for Structural Engineers to Embrace Structural Fire Protection

Thursday, April 26, 2018

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For the past century, project stakeholders have tolerated a strikingly inefficient and amorphous system for protecting structures from uncontrolled fire. Also, structural engineers are often absent from the structural fire protection design process. However, due to recent advancements put forth by ASCE/SEI, now is a great time for structural engineers to get involved with structural fire protection and lead its implementation in practice. Encouragingly, this area represents one of the most promising opportunities for structural engineers to add value to building design.

Traditionally, structural fire protection is prescribed for structures after they have been optimized for ambient design loads (i.e., gravity, wind, seismic, and others). This century-old prescriptive framework endeavors to reduce the heating of individual structural components with the intent of mitigating the risk of structural failure under fire exposure. Accordingly, the vulnerability of buildings to structural failure from uncontrolled fire varies across different jurisdictions -which have differing structural design requirements for ambient loads- and as a function of building system and component configuration. 

ASCE/SEI 7-16 now permits designers to utilize structural fire engineering as an alternative to the code-default prescriptive method. Specifically, Section 1.3.7 states that structural fire protection shall be provided per prescriptive requirements of the applicable building code, or by employing a performance-based approach in accordance with the new Appendix E section per building authority approval. Effectively, Appendix E brings structural engineers into the fold of structural fire protection design when alternatives to the prescriptive method are sought by project stakeholders.  ASCE/SEI has also approved a new Manual of Practice (Structural Fire Engineering), which tentatively will be released later this year.

New ASCE/SEI guidance should validate structural engineers whom wish to engage and lead in the field of structural fire protection. Also, building officials now have tools to comprehensively evaluate structural fire protection variances. The future is bright in this space for structural engineers to impact the industry.

Kevin J. LaMalva, P.E. is registered as both a fire protection engineer and civil engineer, and has worked at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Inc. since 2007. He is Chair of the ASCE/SEI Fire Protection Committee, and a member of numerous industry committees that conduct research and develop standards for structural fire safety. His work experience spans many areas of fire safety and structural engineering. He has recently been recognized as an ENR Newsmaker for serving the "best interests of the construction industry and the public .