Re: High-tech high 3/1/02

March 19, 2002 |

To the Editor:

We read with interest your feature story in the 03/02 Building Design & Construction magazine. Walter Payton High School appears to be a fantastic facility for learning; it would have been intriguing to be involved in the project.

We have to note, however, that the fire protection for the atrium roof does not meet NFPA-13 standards. One can see at the lowest portion of the arched ceiling (see right side of cover photograph) that there are horizontal sidewall sprinklers pointing up the slope of the ceiling. There are no sprinkler manufacturers that list their horizontal sidewall sprinklers for that configuration. NFPA-13 is clear that horizontal sidewall sprinklers shall be used only under 'smooth, flat ceilings.' Generally speaking, it is acceptable to locate these sprinklers such that their spray is directed down a sloped ceiling, but not up or tangential to a sloped surface.

The real question is who made the decision to allow the configuration shown? If this was made by a professional engineer with expertise in sprinkler systems, then there is likely no problem. From a performance basis, it is possible that the installation as shown would control a fire. A fire protection engineer could make that decision, based on fire modeling or engineering judgment. Nevertheless, the decision would have to be supported by documentation and approval from the local authority having jurisdiction.

If the layout decision was made entirely by the installing contractor, then there could be a problem. Is there an engineer receiving pay for their fire protection consulting services? If so, then why is a nonstandard sprinkler system allowed to be installed without their input?

There is a real crisis across our country with engineers practicing outside their area of expertise - particularly plumbing engineers specifying fire sprinkler systems. Our experience has been that most do not have the expertise to properly review the sprinkler shop drawings, let alone provide meaningful specifications.

Walter Payton High is a beautiful facility with what appears on the surface to be a minor deviation from fire protection standards. It may be symbolic of a nationwide problem in engineering ethics. Hopefully, this ethics problem was nonexistent at Payton, and the project has the proper engineering documentation for the alternative fire protection installed.


Mark A. Sornsin, PE

Sornsin Engineering, Inc.

One N. Second St., Suite 212

Fargo, ND 58102

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