The History of Performance-Based Design in Fire Protection & Egress Modeling

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Aric Aumond, P.E.


May 4, 2022

Performance-based design has a storied past and a bright future. In this blog, we look at the history of performance-based design and its advantages for fire protection and life safety.

Performance-based design uses engineering tools to develop fire protection solutions. Since every building is unique, fire protection engineers must consider the ultimate safety goals for each facility. Then, they establish objectives and performance criteria that meet those goals.

Operators leverage advanced fire and egress modeling technologies in performance-based design to determine alternative directions toward compliance with designated building codes. The goal is to provide architects, builders and others with highly flexible fire protection engineering solutions that maximize life safety without confining it to the limitations of the prescriptive code.

Performance-based fire design tasks engineers and designers to apply science and engineering to design fire protection and life safety systems in buildings. They account for the specific characteristics of the building under consideration. This path is chosen over applying generic checklist requirements found in prescriptive building and fire codes that may be inappropriate considering a building's unique characteristics.

But to realize the future potential of performance-based design, you need to look at its history.

The History of Performance-Based Design

Any early implementation of performance-based building design requirements is found in Hammurabi's Code which states, “a house should not collapse and kill anybody.”

Later, the performance-based design approach emerged in the second half of the 20th century. When the local building markets realized they needed greater flexibility in constructing buildings, they turned to a performance-based design approach.

E.J. Gibson from the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building Construction (CIB) gave one of the earliest definitions of performance-based design back in 1982: “first and foremost, the performance approach is the practice of thinking and working in terms of ends rather than means. It is concerned with what a building or building product is required to do, and not with prescribing how it is to be constructed.”

More recently, stakeholders reviewed decades of worldwide experience using standards, codes and guidelines related to performance-based fire protection design for buildings. The outcome was an inconsistency in the resulting levels of performance achieved and several opportunities to enhance the process.

To apply performance-based design, the solution must provide the same level of safety and reliability as the prescriptive solution. But the difference is that performance-based design achieves the objectives in more flexible and effective ways.

This is why research into understanding fire-related phenomena is so important. Using analytical tools with benchtop and full-scale testing has enabled fire protection engineers to develop performance-based solutions to solve complex problems. To ensure the solution is sound, any proposed performance-based design solution must be accepted by all stakeholders.

Performance-Based Fire Design Advantages & Uses

Performance-based design grants designers greater control over fire and life safety systems than the prescriptive method. Instead of following prescriptive code checklists that don’t account for a building’s unique qualities, fire protection engineers utilize engineering and modeling to determine if a solution will work. The result is a cost-effective design that meets the building’s unique needs and can significantly reduce construction costs and make designs that would not be possible with a straight prescriptive design.

Performance-based design in fire protection and life safety is often used for:

  • Evaluating and optimizing alternative smoke control systems
  • Analyzing occupant tenability during various fire scenarios
  • Justifying increased travel distances and occupant loading
  • Evaluating structural elements during various fire scenarios
  • Justifying the decrease or omission of fireproofing or spray applied fireproofing (SFRM)
  • Justifying shortened fire-separation distances

Fire protection engineers can also use performance-based design to help evaluate alternative smoke detector or sprinkler spacing, reduce or eliminate smoke and heat vents, and resolve code deficiencies. That way, they can ensure a finished building that is safe and beautiful.


The history of performance-based design shows there is always room for innovation. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to buildings, so strictly adhering to prescriptive codes isn’t always the best option. Performance-based design proves you can design a solution to overcome any challenge without sacrificing fire protection or life safety to occupants.

Performance Based Fire Protection Engineering provides unique performance-based design solutions for public and private sector project challenges. We deliver custom solutions that meet or exceed prescriptive code in solving fire protection and life safety problems. To learn more about our approach to performance-based design, contact us.