Advances in Fire-Rated Glazing Enhance School Safety

By Ellen Rogers

Fire-rated glass is unique. Architects and specifiers may choose a specific clear glass because they like the way it looks or want to allow light into a particular space, but this is not the same with fire-rated glazing. The primary purpose of fire-rated glass is to contain and slow the spread of fire, allowing occupants to exit safely. So, if you want to use glass in certain locations—a stairwell, for example—codes require the use of fire-rated glass. Decades ago, these options were limited, and glass was used minimally. Today, fire-rated products are used in large openings and with various added aesthetic and performance benefits. These added benefits have also helped increase the opportunities for fire-rated glazing in schools and other educational facilities, providing safety and security, natural light, and many other benefits.

Staying Safe

December 2022 will mark ten years since the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. There were many questions around school security following that tragic event. While early discussions considered whether schools should have bullet-resistant glass, the focus soon shifted to delaying entry and understanding that buying more time to respond was the key.

“It’s no longer a simple matter of providing fire protection or impact-safety protection. Firms face the challenge of providing forced-entry resistance to enable lockdown protocols and meet other security safeguards at a time when there are no established educational occupancy code requirements to help govern the process,” says David Vermeulen, North American sales director with Technical Glass Products based in Snoqualmie, Wash. “Task groups, school boards, manufacturers and security consultants are working hard to put uniform policies and tools in place. However, without official standards guiding useage, more [people] in the field are taking on the responsibility of understanding how to specify systems and access points. This ensures they meet life safety and security needs—now and in the future.”

He adds this isn’t an easy task, especially in areas subject to fire-rated requirements.

“The desire for enhanced security does not remove the requirement to meet fire- and life-safety codes. This has understandably sparked demand for multifunctional systems, meaning products that address performance requirements. But creating these systems is not as easy as simply marrying a fire-rated product with a forced-entry product or ballistic-rated product. These products all perform very differently and are tested to different criteria. When combined, it’s important to demonstrate that the products do not fail in either test protocol.”

Fyre-Tec, based in Wayne, Neb., is a manufacturer of steel fire-rated window systems. General manager Jason Gehling says his company has continued to see an increasing need for products that meet fire-performance requirements and forced entry.

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen a strong push for the door/opening areas to function with the rest of the envelope; we’ve heard that calling from architects,” he says. Specifically, the vestibule area in schools is an example of an application that needs both a fire-rated assembly and added security. His company recently developed, certified and tested a fire-rated product he says is intended to help buy response time in a forced-entry event.

“Today, new mandates and testing standards are being considered regarding forced-entry applications, but it’s still unknown how this will be built into building codes across all jurisdictions. Our company has been proactive in addressing these safety issues by manufacturing a line of windows that can meet both the stringent UL requirements of fire ratings while addressing occupant safety during a forced-entry event,” he says. “In situations like these, time is crucial-whether you’re slowing the spread of a fire or resisting a direct assault on your facility.”

Gehling says architects are designing school interiors to avoid hidden areas.

“The designs allow for more visibility to see who is entering the building [and keep] the vestibule areas secure,” he says.

Bring in the Light

In addition to added safety, fire-rated glazing applications can also help increase the amount of natural light coming into the school. As many studies have shown, children learn better and are more productive when exposed to abundant natural light.

“We’ve seen more school designs where the glazing is incorporated into the stairwells to encourage using the stairs rather than elevators,” says Diana San Diego, vice president of marketing with Safti First in San Francisco. “If you want to use glass in those applications, it must be fire-rated. Now, it can act as a wall and still meet the code. We’re also seeing it in one-hour corridors where schools can incorporate more glass than they normally do. They can increase the amount of glass in fire-rated areas and can have it go floor-to-ceiling.”

She continues, “No other building material brings natural light and vision [like glass]. And so much research proves that having natural light and a connection to the outdoors helps in learning and … every designer should explore that option.”

Vermeulen adds, “We’re seeing it used in in-fills, interior courtyard conversions, and retrofits to let in daylight and open up views, whether the need is to pull in light from atriums above or open up dark corridors. We also see fire-rated glass used in new builds—both on the interior and exterior—to create light, bright and open student-focused learning areas.”

Gehling agrees, adding, “I have been on school boards … I think glass and natural light influences the learning environment; it creates a comfortable space and allows you to see outside.” That learning environment, he says, “Has to be combined with keeping occupants safe, and the right glazing products can allow that.”

Keeping Up

With so many changes and developments around both products and codes, architects sometimes have questions about what products they can use and where. That’s one reason why education is so important. For example, San Diego says wired glass is still a confusing issue.

“Architects either think it’s completely banned, which it’s not, or they think it’s not a problem,” she says. “When the codes changed in 2003, banning wired glass doors, sidelites and hazordous locations in educational facilities, it did not mandate changing the existing wired glass to Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Cat 1- or 2-approved glazing products. Wired glass does not meet current CPSC safety glazing requirements. This means that there are still facilities with dangerous wired glass in doors, sidelites, and other hazardous locations. Even though the code does not mandate changing it over, schools may still be liable for the unsafe wired glass in their buildings because of the availability of economical fire and safety rated alternatives.”

She says that as schools go through a renovation process, they often decide to update the fire-rated glass.

Another challenge, Vermeulen says, is misapplication.

“Fire-rated glass is not a stand alone product. To successfully do its job and defend against fire, it must work in tandem with its frame and component parts. This means the fire-rated glass and frames must have the same or greater ratings and level of fire protection than the required code minimums for the application,” he says. “This is particularly key to get right in school retrofits where it can be easy to focus on updating just one piece of
the puzzle.”

Another challenge, he says, is creating code-driven standards for multi-functional glazing products. While some code bodies and standards organizations are working to address this, industry-wide guidance does not yet exist.

“It’s not uncommon to get calls from architects and consultants about the best method of specifying these complex life safety and security products in schools and for more clarity on municipality requirements,” says Vermeulen. “While there is a lot of conversation around the particulars, there is room for misapplication and marrying products that do not perform well together. The opportunity here is to standardize requirements and provide guidance on when, where, and how to spec multifunctional glazing products. This
will provide confidence to the specifier, building owner, and occupants knowing that the system will operate and functionally perform as intended, on all levels.”

But before any product is installed, it must be purchased and, for many schools, the cost is one of the biggest hurdles. Gehling says there have been increases in federal dollars, and municipalities and schools are starting discussions to safeguard their buildings.

In situations where cost is a concern, Vermeulen says it’s important to address the long-term payoff and value.

“That’s why it’s key to help the design professionals and building owner understand what life safety and performance benefits they’re purchasing. For example, the typical K-12 school building is designed to last 30 years or more, which provides a lengthy amount of time to amortize the costs of critical life safety products. In addition, while a low-cost option might save on upfront expenses, it can leave the door open for costly accidents, injuries, or repairs down the road. Fortunately, with today’s wide range of products, it’s typically possible to help customers find a clear, wireless, and high-performance solution within the budget that adequately prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of students and staff.”

He adds, “The demand for safer, more secure schools isn’t going away, and we know how important vision and daylight are for student learning and overall mental wellness. We must work with firms and pay attention to how their design needs are shifting to ensure we provide educational facility designers with the solutions they need.”

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.

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