Building Design Solutions for Hazardous Materials Storage and Use

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Building Design Solutions for Hazardous Materials Storage and Use

Workplace Safety Drives Regulations


Unsafe Storage Space


Internal Storage Space

Pharmaceutical companies, scientific researchers, and manufacturers of common household products use, store, and dispose of hazardous, even deadly, materials on a daily basis. Therefore, it is important that they follow the many codes regulating these materials and ensure that their facilities are designed to maintain a safe work environment. Often, facility owners do not know what chemicals they have on site, says Greg Burrows, principal of BHDP Architecture located in both Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, which specializes in the design of high-tech research facilities.

A recent study of 300 facilities showed some disturbing results, says Burrows:
• 33 percent of chemicals included as part of the inventories did not exist at the facility. Therefore, one-third of all time and energy spent tracking chemicals was wasted on chemicals that did not even exist.
• 75 percent of all products were missing their required material safety data sheets. Users were denied their “right-to-know” about the hazardous materials present in their workplace. This is in violation of a federal law and a fundamental workplace requirement.
• 90 percent of inventory changed monthly, emphasizing the need for databases to track the change.
• 60 percent of the chemicals were carcinogens.

Why does this matter? Because even the most innocent oversights can be disastrous. In 2002, for example, workers in the Chelsea Building in New York caused an explosion when one poured paint thinner down a drain and another poured nitric acid down the same drain. The chemicals mixed in the drain pipe, reacted, and exploded, blowing out the front of the building.

“Fortunately nobody was killed in this accident,” says Burrows. “But this isn’t something you want to wake up to in the morning and have to explain, if this is your building.”

In Cincinnati in 2005, a railroad tanker full of styrene, which is both toxic and explosive, was left on a track and forgotten. When the styrene heated up, it became unstable and started to leak. The entire area, including two major thoroughfares into the city, had to be evacuated for two weeks.

“Before this happened, most people in the city didn’t know this company by name,” says Burrows. “Now it is a household word. That is not how you want to get famous.”

Both of those incidents were likely the result of unawareness, which is something BHDP works hard to combat. Information about a building’s intended uses and contents is important even before it is built because the amount of hazardous material present will impact building design and cost.

“Our first question when we start a project is always, ‘What chemicals do you intend to have in your building?’” says Wayne Walters, a project manager at BHDP. “One answer that is not acceptable is, ‘I don’t know.’”

Cobbling Together Regulations

Regulations around the use, storage, and disposal of hazardous materials have been evolving for more than 100 years, starting with fire protection. In the late 1800s, a group of insurance carriers met in Boston in an attempt to standardize building sprinkler systems – Boston alone had 10 different standards in effect. That group grew into the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA). In 1917, the NFPA founded the Committee on Hazardous Chemicals.

Throughout the 1900s, cities, states, and other jurisdictions adopted fire and building codes to address NFPA standards. A set of international building and fire codes was finally written in 2000, replacing more than 5,000 local codes. The international codes have been adopted by Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and 47 states; California intends to adopt the code in 2006, Hawaii in 2007, and Massachusetts “sometime in the future,” says Walters. The NFPA standards are referenced, not repeated, in the International Codes because they are so comprehensive.

Even in states where the codes have been adopted, local authorities can draft exceptions to account for unique circumstances, such as the proliferation of high-rises in New York.

In 2006, the international codes added an important amendment: Hazardous materials in any quantity shall conform to the International Building and Fire Codes.

“They are trying to break the old mindset that if you do not have large amounts of these materials, you do not need to worry about them,” says Walters. “These chemicals in any quantity need to be attended to.”

If the activities in a particular building are considered a “hazardous use,” the entire building must be designed accordingly, which can be twice as expensive to build. The code allows for 15 exemptions to designating a building as “non-hazardous,” the most significant of which are:

1. Maintain no more than the “Maximum Allowable Quantity” (MAQ) of hazardous materials.
2. Maintain no more than the MAQs per control area. A “control area” is a building or a portion of a building that is surrounded by fire-rated walls, floors, and ceilings; a separate compartment in the building.

For example, the code allows as many as four control areas on the first floor, and 120 gallons of flammable liquid per control area. If the building has a sprinkler system that meets NFPA 13, the amount doubles. It doubles again if the chemicals are stored in an approved cabinet, raising the MAQ to 480 gallons per control area or 1,920 gallons on the first floor.

Another option is to construct an outdoor storage area, which must meet certain criteria, such as minimum separation distances from the property lines and between outdoor storage areas. Some companies with a larger campus construct their own warehouses and bring the material into the building on a just-in-time basis, or they have their suppliers warehouse the chemicals off site.

Different Buildings Require Different Designs

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Most buildings that contain hazardous materials can be designated as “non-hazardous buildings” because they contain less than the MAQ of the hazardous materials.

“Non-hazardous is any building type besides a hazardous building,” says Robin Claucherty, a project architect at BHDP. “It can be a business use, factory/industrial, storage use, or utility/industrial.”

The MAQ per control area is not the only restriction. Control areas are not allowed on any floor more than two stories below grade. Above the first floor, the one-hour fire wall protection increases to two hours, unless the building is fully sprinklered and no higher than three stories. As you get above the first floor, the MAQ decreases so that by the time you reach the 12th floor, only 24 gallons of flammable liquid are allowed. Some cities with many high-rises and not much room to build, such as New York, have opted to soften this restriction locally, says Burrows, so it is necessary to always get the building and fire code from the local authorities.

“At the University of Cincinnati, they have a number of high-rise lab towers that were built in the 1970s,” says Burrows. “Their solution is to have a hazardous use room that they built either in the basement or on the first floor. Researchers call up from the lab and someone brings them the material and then brings it back. That is a pretty difficult way to manage hazardous material.”

The first floor of a building permits the largest amount of allowable hazardous material. A typical single-story 10,000-sf lab building, completely sprinklered throughout with type 2B construction—meaning that the building is not fireproofed—can have four control areas, each containing the MAQ. Three of the control areas can be labs or storage rooms, and the fourth should be the rest of the building to allow for the movement of hazardous materials throughout the facility.

Control areas located above the first floor must have a two-hour floor/ceiling assembly below the control areas, as well as a fireproofed structure. The same is true for each subsequent floor as one moves higher in a multi-story building.

Control areas can also be entire buildings as long as the MAQ is maintained throughout the entire facility.

One BHDP client was renovating a 150-year-old building into offices and limited lab space, says Claucherty. It wasn’t cost effective to create control areas within the existing building because of the open circulation and the fact that the floors weren’t rated.

“What they ended up doing was building their labs in a new building across the street,” she says. “They had limited lab space in the old building, but by calling the entire old building a control area, they were allowed to move hazardous material throughout the facility.”

Hazardous buildings are those that contain more than the MAQ of hazardous materials.

“This is something we don’t see many clients go towards, because construction cost will double, and there are more restrictions,” she says.

These buildings are categorized Hazardous H1 through H5, with H1 being the most dangerous.

“That is explosive material,” explains Claucherty. “Those buildings really can’t have anything around them. That’s why the fireworks stores that you see driving down the highway are there by themselves.”

Hazardous buildings carry more size, height, and siting limitations. More fire-rated walls and exits are required, and exit separation distance is limited compared to a non-hazardous building.

An option many clients choose is to construct a mixed-use building, which may be a non-hazardous building with restricted hazardous use in it. Mixed use can be an option when hazardous material quantity totals exceed MAQs. It provides a compromise that accommodates high hazards, yet limits their impact on building design and cost. As such, it may be regarded as the “low cost option” of high hazard building design.

By Lisa Wesel

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