I’ve rethought my career only a few times in my life. None of which were very serious, often more or less originating as daydreams of becoming a full time artist and living on a beach. Not so a few years into the profession when I ran into a major design issue on a premiere project.
The job was a large commercial headquarters split by a four-story atrium that was coming together as an architectural achievement in itself. Nothing outlandish or world-renowned, but in my limited experience it was the biggest and best project I had worked on to date.
Design phases came and went with big deadlines any consultant has surely experienced. Our scope at the time was limited to design-build (or performance specifications) fire alarm and sprinkler system plans and specifications. We coordinated standpipes, flow switches for smoke control zones, data center clean agent systems, graphic annunciators, and other features not commonplace in most office buildings.
It wasn’t until a day before my wife and I were to leave on a week-long Christmas vacation that I received word that a large change order coming based on a difference between our expectations for sprinkler protection and the contractor’s bid for both of the atrium’s four-story stairwells.
At the intersection of the two office buildings and the atrium resided two exit enclosure stair towers which contain large glass curtain walls on three sides. The exit enclosure required a two-hour separation at every instance of glass – totaling nearly 24 instances of glass curtain wall that required the two-hour fire rating.
Upon further study, the documents I had prepared indicated window sprinkler protection for the stairwell with a basic plan note inconsistently placed on the floor plans, and each of which pointed to a single window pane.
I learned later that the bidding contractor had interpreted the overly vague plan note as "closely-spaced" sprinkler protection using standard pendent sprinklers, and only required on the window panes where the exact plan keynote had pointed. Meaning - the bid included less than a sixth of the intended coverage and not even using the right sprinklers.
The intent of the specification (and the code requirement) for using non-fire rated glass was to provide window-style sprinklers (the Tyco WS model) along all portions and on both sides of the curtain wall glass (ie: along both sides of 24 glass curtain walls).
The difference between the original bid and the cost for including these areas? Nearly $75,000!
As a young designer a few years removed from school and overconfident in my knowledge at the time, I wasn’t sure if I was a poor communicator, stupid, going to be out of a job or all of the above. In one invoice that change order was well more than I was earning and it brought serious thoughts about whether I was really meant to pursue fire protection as a career.
Coming to the gravity of the situation as I first became aware of the gap, I spoke to my superiors including the engineer of record I worked under through the project about the coming issue and the details associated with it. You know that feeling when your stomach just drops and your throat knots up? I felt it and it was awful.
It’s one thing to have to sit and share in every detail of an issue with a lot of bite, and it is another to then also ask for help in filling in while I would be out the following week for vacation. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well for several weeks and checked email constantly while I was out to try and stay abreast of the issue.
Following New Year’s we had multiple meetings on the issue with the architect, general and subcontractors, and owner present to thoroughly vet the miscommunication and evaluate possible solutions.
Was the contractor justified in the additional cost? We detailed the contractor’s proposal for design time, pipe lengths, increased main sizing to supply the required hydraulic demand, additional sprinklers, change in sprinkler type, and labor time associated with the change and - it was within reason.
Were there alternatives to window-style sprinklers? Closely spaced sprinklers along glass can be used under the IBC in lieu of a 1-hour fire rated wall for atria specifically, but not a 2-hour barrier. Using rated glass without the window sprinklers, as we confirmed, was nearly ten times the cost of providing window style sprinklers.
Also, if you've never worked with an architect before, they're not exactly thrilled that their feature windows will have clear pipe and sprinklers exposed in every view. Being that window-style sprinklers have very specific limitations on where they must be located (the deflector must be 2-4 inches below the top window mullion), both the sprinklers and piping would be exposed. On the atrium side of the stair, the pipe ran just above the window header and ran down to the pane below. The installing contractor actually did a phenomenal job of taking the challenge to conceal pipe and sprinklers as best as possible, but it still irritated the architect to no end.
Financially, was there a contingency for additional services on a large project like this? Yes, and that’s what ended up covering the cost increase. That being said, there was a whole lot of heartburn, uncomfortable calls and meetings, and difficult conversations to have when discussing fine details of a single keynote.
What did the keynote say? At this point, I don’t even remember the exact verbiage. From the stress it induced it would be reasonable to think that I’d know it word-for-word, but that’s not the intent for sharing the story.
I learned a few things through the ordeal. First is that we’re not perfect. I was handed a heavy dose of humility through the whole process, which in hindsight probably helped me to be slightly more considerate and certainly more willing to thoroughly vet design documents.
Second is that learning through seeking feedback is an important part of improvement. While negative feedback is never a joy, incorporating criticism is an important part of growth.
Another was the importance of clarity in documents and communication. As I know work both for architects/owners and sprinkler contractors, I see both sides of where clear documentation can be a major benefit and where the opposite can be a major burden to a project. Use of details, sections, and concise language can better convey exact needs in lieu of poor general descriptions.
After going through the tirade in the following months I was overwhelmingly reminded about the benefits of fire protection as a career. It can be challenging, it can incorporate a wide variety of disciplines and systems, and above all it is important. Life safety is something that we cannot get wrong. If going through a drenching of heartache to end up with a system that protects people and property, then dealing with all the issues along the way was well worth it.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.