Case Study: Fire-Rated Glazing Helps Achieve Design Goals at University and Beyond

Advances in this material have helped it be more versatile across the built environment.
By David Vermeulen
December 6, 2022

Fire-rated glazing used to be limited to small lites of wired glass. However, advances in this material have helped it be more versatile across the built environment.

For instance, the University of Michigan – Flint needed to expand its William R. Murchie Science Building to keep pace with the increasing student interest in STEM. While the need to increase the number of classrooms, labs and study areas prompted the renovation, the school and designers also wanted to create an environment that fosters interdepartmental dialogue and showcases the science and engineering work taking place on campus.

To accomplish these goals, the building was originally designed with an open stairwell and floorplan. But, due to the size of the combined levels, fire- and life-safety codes required a fire-rated barrier between floors to inhibit the spread of smoke and flames.

The code requirements prompted a choice: either abandon the original design concept or adapt it. The teams involved chose to adapt, which allowed the designers to keep the intent of their original design.

They also changed the scope of the project, which in turn changed what was expected of the contractors involved. Because designs like William R. Murchie Science Building’s are becoming more common, construction professionals who can work with and around these materials can provide better value to projects that include it.

A common design issue requires uncommon products

The push and pull between design and code requirements is a common construction challenge. And perhaps, in the past, architects may have had to compromise their aesthetic vision to satisfy these requirements. However, advances in fire-rated glazing have allowed these products to move beyond the traditional wired-glass and limited lite size of the past. These advances increase the versatility of fire-rated glazing and help meet fire- and life-safety code requirements without sacrificing a project’s design goals.

The butt-glazed assembly used in the William R. Murchie Science Building features a narrow perimeter frame and nearly colorless transitions between adjoining pieces of fire-rated glass. Further, this assembly runs over 30 feet and turns multiple corners for a fire-rated barrier that all but disappears.

Another university project, the Fairleigh Dickinson University Animation Lab, also uses a fire-rated, floor-to-ceiling, butt-glazed system that turns multiple corners. This system helps create a fire barrier while also letting passers-by glimpse animation students hard at work. Like the William R. Murchie Science Building, this helped pique student interest in the department while also fostering a collaborative atmosphere.

The benefits of these butt-glazed assemblies are not limited to stairwell applications. As these two projects show, these systems can be used for most applications needing a fire-rated barrier that also promotes visual connection between spaces. Construction professionals who are familiar with fire-rated products can potentially leverage their knowledge for more business as these design moves become more common.

Building educational settings that protect and nurture students

Whereas in the past, fire-rated glazing had size limitations, today’s offerings can provide much more expansive glazing areas, as the William R. Murchie Science Building’s floor-to-ceiling glazing panels demonstrate. While they help protect faculty and students in the event of a fire and maintain open sightlines between spaces, they also provide access to daylight. Allowing light from exterior windows to reach deep within the building, these assemblies support occupant comfort.

The effects of daylighting have been studied since the 1980s. These studies have shown and confirmed that access to daylight improves mood and morale while also reducing eye strain and fatigue in general. For educational settings, exposure to natural light throughout the day can boost information retention, leading to better test scores in the short term and better equipped scientists and engineers in the long term.

The benefits of increased access to daylight is not something that is isolated to the University of Michigan – Flint. In 2017, the University of Kansas renovated its Earth, Energy & Environment Center (EEEC) to provide faculty and students more access to natural light. The school used butt-glazed, fire-rated glazing systems to achieve these designs in areas where the building code requires fire resistance, resulting in classrooms that were flooded with natural light. These systems also allowed students walking through the building to be inspired by the discoveries happening in real time.

Slender frames provide a seamless design aesthetic for renovation projects

Both the butt-glazed assemblies and full-lite fire-rated doors in the William R. Murchie Science Building have narrow profile frames that not only maximize the glazing area but also provide a close visual match between each other and neighboring, non-rated systems. Likewise, the systems used two types of coating to color match nearby handrails. In addition, the die-rolled steel profile doors provide the appearance of narrow-profile aluminum storefront doors, continuing the design aesthetic of large, uninterrupted glazing areas.

The ability for the systems to blend with unchanged parts of the building sidelined a common issue in renovation projects: balancing the old and the new. Because butt-glazed systems and narrow-profile doors have minimal visual elements, they can reduce the amount of work needed to harmonize updated features with what remained unchanged. As more and more business in the construction industry comes from renovations, contractors who can work with easily integrated systems could be in higher demand as designers look to update buildings for the 21st century.

While the systems’ perimeter frames remain visible within the William R. Murchie Science Building, construction professionals can easily conceal these elements.

Benefits of butt-glazed systems extend beyond stairwells

Modern fire-rated glazing systems allowed the designers of the William R. Murchie Science Building renovation to adapt to code requirements without having to compromise the overarching concept behind their plans. Providing an almost invisible barrier between floors, these assemblies contributed to a space that could showcase the exciting STEM work being done at the University of Michigan – Flint.

As these projects indicate, advances in fire-rated glazing products have pushed the envelope of what’s possible within the built environment. Able to hold large lites of glass within narrow-profile perimeter frames, butt-glazed assemblies can provide unrivaled spans of uninterrupted glass. This increases the visual connection between spaces and can enhance occupants’ access to daylight—all while providing critical protection from fire and smoke.

by David Vermeulen

David Vermeulen is the North America sales director at Technical Glass Products (TGP), a division of Allegion that supplies fire-rated glass and framing systems, and other specialty architectural glazing. TGP works closely with architects, designers and other building professionals, providing them with the state-of-the-art products, service and support to maximize design aesthetics and safety in commercial and institutional buildings around the world.

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