Avoiding the Pitfalls

According to the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) “Design-Build is a process that has been embraced by the world's great civilizations. In ancient Mesopotamia, the Code of Hammurabi (1,800 BC) fixed absolute accountability upon master builders for both design and construction. In the succeeding millennia, cathedrals and cable-stayed bridges, cloisters and corporate headquarters have been conceived and constructed using the paradigm of design-build.”

The most common design trend today is to have an architect-engineer (A & E) design team, who is working for the owner, develop both the design and specifications of the various systems to be installed in a building. The electrical contractor then assumes only the installation liability based on the design of the A & E team.

According to the DBIA, the benefits of design-build include singular point of responsibility, quality, cost savings, time savings, potential for reduced administrative burden, early knowledge of firm costs and improved risk management.

Most reputable design-build firms employ architects and engineers who will perform the actual design portion of a design-build project. Other general contractors will ask their subcontractors to bid the project as a design-build, asking the subcontractor to design their respective systems.

Although a single point of responsibility for electrical and fire alarm system design and installation may appeal to the owner of a proposed building, the electrical contractor will need to evaluate his or her entry in to this market very carefully. Contractors are allowed in many states to “design” electrical systems that they will be installing. In many cases, those with the proper experience and licensing can accomplish that function in a capable fashion.

But when a fire alarm system is included in the electrical design-build, contractors should ensure they understand what they are committing themselves to provide. They must also understand that they are assuming total responsibility and liability for a life safety system design and installation.

Contractors must be aware of all of the codes that apply to a fire alarm system within their jurisdiction. Assuming that the NEC and NFPA 72 are the only codes that must be followed is a mistake guaranteed to create costly changes or additions to an installed system.

The locally enforced building code will direct what type of system (manual or automatic) and how much automatic detection is required for a particular occupancy. In addition, local fire authorities may have developed additional guidelines for both the design and installation of fire alarm systems within their jurisdictions.

NFPA 72 has specific requirements regarding the qualifications of both installers and designers.

For example, NFPA 72-2002 4.3.2 states that, “Fire alarm system plans and specifications shall be developed in accordance with this code by persons who are experienced in the proper design, application, installation, and testing of fire alarm systems.”

Unless you or someone on your staff has the necessary experience to design fire alarm systems, obviously you should team with someone who does have the expertise.

Often your fire alarm system equipment supplier will be able to assist you with a design, but ultimately you will be responsible for both.

NFPA 72 requires that you not only develop design documents, but also identify the designer on those documents. And it also states that you must be prepared to produce evidence of your qualifications to design fire alarm systems to the authority having jurisdiction.

Of course the “build” part of design-build projects is what you are used to providing. Knowing the NEC and NFPA installation requirements are usually all you will need to know to properly install a Code-compliant fire alarm system. NFPA also requires that installation personnel are supervised by people “who are qualified and experienced in the installation, inspection, and testing of fire alarm systems.”

NFPA 72-2002, paragraph 4.3.3 provides examples of qualified personnel and states they include, but are not limited to, the following:

o Factory-trained and certified personnel

o National Institute of Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) fire alarm level II certified personnel

o Personnel licensed or certified by a state or local authority.

Generally an electrical contractor falls under the last category, but one must remember that simply holding an electrical license does not automatically qualify you to install fire alarm systems.

Design-build contracts may present unique opportunities to increase both your sales and profit margins but only if you understand the risks involved.

If you plan to enter into the design-build arena, you must ensure that you have or obtain the necessary knowledge and experience to include fire alarm systems in your design-build package. EC

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.


About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist
Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. Moore is a vice president with JENSEN HUGHES at the Warwick, R.I., office. He c...

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