At the 2017 Lab Design Conference, the theme of flexibility was pervasive. When it comes to hazardous material use and storage, the uncertainty of principal investigator programs (or even PIs themselves) and how they change over time can cause anxiety among design teams and end user safety groups tasked with managing to regulatory limits. Is there such a thing as too much flexibility in hazardous materials use and storage?

A prudent first step in laboratory design is to document the hazardous material requirements of the user groups, using a format called a “Hazardous Material Master Plan.” This critical programming element allows for first pass screening to eliminate non-candidate locations—for example, a heavy user of flammable solvents should not be located in a basement laboratory, where storage of such hazardous liquids is generally prohibited by fire codes. The step of documenting user hazardous material needs will also identify groups where needs are in flux, ill-defined or in some cases impossible to quantify at the time of the study.

Of course, unlimited flexibility in a laboratory setting will come at a premium in capital and life-cycle costs. Understanding code- and risk-driven limitations in hazardous material storage and use is important in pushing back to the end user in establishing reasonable limits to contain escalating cost.


A key initial parameter is to determine the applicable building and fire codes for a project. Most U.S. jurisdictions adopt a version of the International Building Code (IBC); fire codes are generally either based on the International Fire Code (IFC) or NFPA 1 Fire Code. Many other parts of the world also use these codes in addition to local ordinances, or may choose to follow guidance of these documents voluntarily as best practice. (For example, some Middle East countries use NFPA 5000 as a building code and NFPA 1 as a fire code; many countries like Canada and China follow unique national codes which are beyond the scope of this article). The frameworks of IBC/IFC/NFPA allow for limited hazardous material use and storage in a Group B, Business occupancy, with the provisions of fire compartmentation and adherence to chemical maximum allowable quantities (MAQs). Some jurisdictions also adopt NFPA 45, Standard for Fire Protection of Laboratories, which requires another layer of compliance for laboratory units.

Fume hoods and flammable storage cabinets are a primary driver of solvent storage. If the space is available, lab users tend to fill it. Image: Jeremy Lebowitz


The first major planning threshold to consider is whether hazardous material needs drive a user group into a High Hazard occupancy classification within the building; High Hazard occupancies are known as Group H-1 through H-5 in the IBC/IFC and as Protection Level 1 through 5 in NFPA. Establishing High Hazard occupancies requires the investment of significant protective features in exchange allows for unlimited storage or use of hazardous materials of a certain class (for example, Group H-3/Protection Level 3 allows for virtually unlimited storage of flammable liquids or oxidizing gases). A building with limited structural fire resistance may not effectively house heavy chemistry users on a high level of the building, forcing either a construction type upgrade or relocation of that group to a floor level closer to grade. Additional restrictions on fire area are also possible, depending on the hazard class of the materials to be stored. It is generally best to limit the size of High Hazard occupancies to the extent possible, and often to storage applications only. Occupiable High Hazard laboratories are scarce, owing to major design constraints such as limited travel distance.

If a laboratory user is unwilling or unable to specify the required hazardous material quantities for their research, the design team is forced to design in flexibility (at added construction and operational cost), or assign limits to the user which may not be acceptable in the short- or long-term.


While laboratory users generally have a good grasp on equipment needs, the modes of raw material ordering and waste collection also factor in to the occupancy design. Users accustomed to ordering solvents in bulk for cost control and pouring off into smaller containers on the First Floor may be surprised to learn that the same operation on the Fourth Floor triggers the need for explosion control— often accomplished by deflagration venting or vapor detection interlocked with purge exhaust. Retrofitting such systems into existing buildings can be an overwhelming endeavor more easily addressed by changing where the user is located in the building or by scaling back the container sizes used for supply or waste collection.

Emergency alarms and gas/vapor detection, as seen here, are some of the costlier supplemental systems sometimes warranted by large quantities of hazardous material storage or use. Image: Jeremy Lebowitz


The method of supply and waste management can also trigger spill control and secondary containment. If hazardous materials are ordered or collected in sufficiently large containers (generally over 55 gallons, or 10 gallons of flammable liquids in NFPA 30 jurisdictions), containment of a hazardous liquid spill and the associated fire water may be indicated to restrict fire to the area of incident. Especially in an existing building, providing containment for thousands of gallons of runoff fire water is a daunting task. Design teams may have difficulty finding space for a tank below grade or underground, or a safe location off site—the task may be impossible with site and structural constraints. Working to curtail container size at the user level may be a more effective strategy of limiting potential fire and hazardous material exposure impacts.


Physical location of specific equipment may also need to be restricted. If a large vessel is open to the atmosphere during its regular course of operation and releases flammable vapors into the room, an electrically classified zone is needed to prevent flash fires. Where specific equipment locations are not specified, this flexibility requires the entire room to be electrically classified—all the switches, receptacles, lighting, controls and auxiliary electrical equipment come at a substantial premium or may not be available in classified form, requiring purged and pressurized enclosures or other acceptable means of protection.


While flexibility is a nice concept, especially for laboratory users who are subject to constantly evolving scientific breakthroughs and analysis techniques, the rubber always meets the road with the design team. Projects are much more likely to be successful when the hazardous material needs of the users are well defined and documented in a master plan document, which guides the design and construction process for science and technology facilities. Then, if flexibility is actually required based on the underlying research, the associated increases in construction and operational costs can be justified to stakeholders at all levels.

Jeremy Lebowitz, PE, is Vice President of Development for the laboratory and industrial markets at JENSEN HUGHES. He is a licensed fire protection engineer in Massachusetts and is based in Framingham, Mass.