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 architect-engineer (A & E) team is the most common design structure today. The pair, working for an owner, develops the design and specifications for systems in a building. The electrical contractor then assumes only the installation liability based on the A & E team's design.

According to the DBIA, the benefits of design-build include single-point 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 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 subcontractors to design their respective systems.

Although single-point responsibility for electrical and fire alarm system design and installation may appeal to the potential building owner, the electrical contractor will need to carefully evaluate entry into this market. Contractors are allowed in many states to design electrical systems 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 understand what they are committed to provide and that they are assuming total responsibility and liability for a life safety system design and installation.

Contractors must be aware of all applicable fire alarm system codes in their jurisdiction. Assuming the National Electrical Code (NEC) and NFPA 72 are the only two 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 installers and designers.

For example, NFPA 72-2002 4.3.2 states: “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 you should team with someone who does.

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

NFPA 72 also requires you to develop design documents and identify their designer. And the code 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 that's needed to properly install a code-compliant fire alarm system. NFPA also requires installation personnel be supervised by persons “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:

“(1) Factory-trained and certified personnel

(2) National Institute of Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) fire alarm Level II certified personnel

(3) Personnel licensed or certified by a state or local authority.”

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

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

If you plan to enter into the design-build arena, ensure that you have or will 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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