Crack the Code for Lab Control Areas

Crack the Code for Lab Control Areas

By Jess Hamilton, Project Manager

Control areas are a tool to compartmentalize a lab building so that the amount of chemicals being used is code compliant, and if a fire occurs, its spread can be minimized. Multiple control areas are desirable in both new and existing buildings, but this can be achieved in numerous ways.

When a life science company is looking for space, they should work with their environmental health and safety (EH&S) vendor to develop a list of chemicals that will be used in their laboratory. A wet lab with hazardous and/or combustible chemicals and gases must be evaluated by an architect for such factors as the availability of space on the lowest floors of a building, construction type classification, sprinkler and/or fire suppression systems and the ability to comply with the National Fire Protection Agency Codes.

There are three distinct codes that need to be considered when designing control areas, including the International Building Code (IBC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 45, and NFPA 30.

With IBC, the enclosed area is a control area defined as “spaces within a building where quantities of hazardous materials not exceeding the maximum allowable quantities per control area are stored, dispensed, used, or handled.” NFPA 45, “Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals,” is the industry’s comprehensive source for requirements for the fire-safe design and operation of laboratories to avoid injury to lab occupants. It outlines the maximum allowable quantities of liquids and gases, as well as requirements for ventilating systems and chemical fume hoods.

The enclosed area is the laboratory itself, and is divided into hazard levels A, B, C and D based upon the amount of chemicals that are in use. NFPA 30, “Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code,” provides fundamental safeguards for the storage, handling, and use of flammable and combustible liquids and, in short, includes a system for categorizing liquids as being flammable or combustible.

Diminishing Chemical Use on Upper Floors

With new buildings, determining the construction type (IBC Types I-V) dictates the control area strategy, which is based on the required fire resistance rating and separation distance for occupancy groups B and H, under which most research labs are categorized. In modern lab buildings, where each floor typically gets at least one control area, the amount of allowable chemicals decreases for each story above the ground floor per code due to the increased difficulty of access by the fire department.

Above the seventh floor, control areas are limited to 5 percent of the chemicals that can be used on the first floor. In past projects designed by our firm, providing a two-hour fire rating to the floors and the supporting structure has been successful in providing the maximum possible number of control areas. This provides the most flexible control area strategy which benefits both tenants and landlords who want buildings that will serve as laboratories for the long term.

For an existing building renovation, a careful review of existing conditions, including as-built drawings and invasive partial demolition, is required to confirm that the floors are rated to allow for separate control areas on adjacent floors. When the floors aren’t rated – this includes the gap often found at the edge of the floor slab – there are alternatives to consider. The gap at the edge of the floors can be infilled to create a two- hour rating and add extra fireproofing to columns and beams.

Another alternative is to create three distinct rated storage rooms on the first floor of the building. The latter alternative, which takes advantage of the higher capacity of chemicals permitted to be stored at lower levels, treats the rest of the building as a single control area, thus limiting the amount of chemicals a tenant can use. Tenants switch chemicals in the building between their storage area and laboratory as they need to use them.

In either new buildings or building renovations, the chemical usage of tenants needs to be monitored on an ongoing basis. Tenants are responsible for securing chemical use licenses annually and building owners must maintain a chemical use permit that matches their tenants’ licenses.

This article was featured in Banker & Tradesman.