Editor's Note: This is first article in a series that will look at the importance of understanding the components of building construction and design. This column is designed to assist firefighters and officers in planning their tactics.
The more time I spend in the fire service, the more I realize that knowledge of building construction is crucial to the successful outcome of many incidents. However, with all the specialized training required for the multitude of tasks the fire service is expected to be competent in, there is little time left for training in building construction.
In order to effectively fight or command a structure fire you must have a good basic knowledge of building construction and the construction types in your response area. Constant changes in building construction materials and methods and changes in building code requirements makes it difficult for firefighters to have a complete understanding of every current construction practice. It is important to work hard to stay on top of new construction practices (particularly the practices in your response area) so you know how to deal with them and how they will react to fire.
This series of articles will help firefighters have a basic knowledge of the architectural, structural, heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, electrical, and fire protection systems that exist today. The series will include the basics of each aspect as well as some of the obstacles that different variations of the systems may cause when operating at a fire.
This particular series will detail what is typically found in commercial construction. While there is some overlap with residential construction, especially multi-family construction, one- and two-family dwellings are a topic that needs to be addressed separately because of the substantial differences in the two construction types.
When I say architectural systems, I am referring to everything that is left in the building when we remove the structural, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and fire protection systems. The argument can be made that the structural system should be included as part of the architectural system, however we know the structural system, is the system that keeps the building standing. Therefore and entire section will be dedicated to later in the series.
The Design Process
Before we begin to discuss the actual systems, it is important to have a basic understanding of the processes that occur before a building is actually constructed or renovated. Generally when a building owner decides to construct a building he will hire an architect to plan and design the facility for him.
The architect will then hire multiple consultants to assist him in the building design, these consultants will include; civil engineers for both the structural and site work, mechanical engineers for the HVAC and plumbing design, electrical engineers for the power and lighting design. Occasionally a fire protection engineer will be used for the design of the sprinkler and fire alarm system, however when a fire protection engineer is not part of the design team the mechanical engineer will typically design the sprinkler system and the electrical engineer will design the fire alarm system. Additionally, there may be specialty consultants for such items as elevators, roofs, and door hardware.
The architect will then work with his or her team of consultants to determine the best design of the facility insuring that the design meets all or the needs of the building owner and all code requirements. It is very important to remember that this design may not be what firefighters would consider the best design. The design will then be provided to the building owner. Once the building owner approves of the design, the architect and his team will produce construction documents. The project will then be bid on by contractors who will use the construction documents as their basis for pricing.