Performance-Based Fire Safety Design: Busting 5 Myths

Our team of experts offers regular updates on FPE and life safety best practices, code modifications and more.

Austin Grant, P.E.


March 8, 2023

Performance-based fire safety design has become an increasingly popular approach for buildings. However, there are still some misconceptions that can prevent people from taking advantage of its benefits. That’s why we explore five common myths and debunk them.

Building codes have a long history of protecting people and property from fires. However, as technology and construction methods have evolved along with humanity's usage of buildings, building codes have faced the challenge of adapting. An important approach architects and engineers have turned to is performance-based fire safety design

As Fire Protection Engineers (FPEs) implement performance-based design, it’s essential to educate authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs), building owners, architects, and other stakeholders on the topic. FPEs often face pushback when deviating from prescriptive building code requirements, often based on myths or misunderstandings of performance-based design. Let's explore some of those myths.

1. The U.S. Code Structure Isn't Set Up for Performance-Based Fire Safety Design

Prescriptive code requirements can present many challenges in building design when it comes to aesthetic and functional goals. Using a performance-based design approach may seem like a cheat code to avoid stringent prescriptive building code requirements.

However, the performance-based design approach is not a deviation from the building code; building codes and life safety codes such as the International Building Code (IBC), NFPA 1: Fire Code, and NFPA 101: Life Safety Code permit a performance-based fire safety design approach as a code-compliant option.

2. Performance-Based Fire Safety Design Is Just Used to Cut Costs

Prescriptive code requirements can be very costly to implement. However, costs aren't the only reason performance-based design may be necessary.

Unique building needs require unique design approaches; performance-based fire safety design can be used to meet project goals such as

  • Reducing environmental impact
  • Implementing aesthetic characteristics
  • Maintaining historic features
  • Determining fire safety approaches for emerging technologies where no prescriptive standards are developed yet

For example, before the development and formal adoption of NFPA 855: Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems, performance-based design was known to be utilized for the design of battery energy storage systems. 

3. Performance-Based Fire Safety Design Results in a Less Fire-Safe Building

FPEs look at buildings holistically from a fire and life safety standpoint and understand the importance of multiple fire and life safety systems working together to provide a safe environment. The purpose of performance-based fire safety design isn't simply to eliminate fire safety systems or life safety requirements.

Instead, a performance-based design will consider fire hazards and realistic possible fire scenarios uniquely applicable to the building. It helps to evaluate how each life safety system performs to implement a unique design approach that will meet the specific fire and life safety goals of that building.

This is often accomplished through the use of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models paired with egress models to simulate tenability conditions (carbon monoxide levels, exposure temperatures, visibility conditions, etc.) for building occupants throughout various stages of fire growth and occupant evacuation.

The in-depth study of multiple design fire scenarios goes above and beyond the prescriptive requirements of the IBC and NFPA codes to help ensure fire and life safety objectives are accomplished.

4. Performance-Based Fire Safety Design Won't Be Accepted by AHJs in My Area 

Architects and engineers new to the idea of performance-based design are often concerned about successfully proposing design alternatives through performance-based fire safety design methods to AHJs. Concerns often involve AHJs not wanting to deviate from building codes (see myth #1 above) or not having the resources or education to feel confident in accepting a design alternative.

However, FPEs experienced in performance-based design will guide the design team through the process, gathering the stakeholders early in the process and determining the project's goals agreed upon by everyone. A letter of intent and design brief will be issued for review, discussion, and approval by the AHJ in the early stages of the performance-based fire safety design so that the AHJ will have an opportunity for input and to have any questions or concerns addressed.

Additionally, the AHJ has the option of requiring an approved, independent third party to conduct a review so that the performance-based design can be evaluated by a third party that may have more experience and expertise, giving the AHJ more confidence in the proposed design.

5. Performance-Based Fire Safety Design Is a New Concept

Since the prescriptive code approach is the most common method of building design in the United States, taking a performance-based fire safety design approach may seem to be a novel concept. 

However, an example of performance-based design in building construction can be traced back to Hammurabi's Code from c. 1750 BC, when failing to meet the performance goals in building construction meant serious consequences for the builder.

In modern codes, NFPA 1 implemented a chapter dedicated to a performance-based option in 2003. The first edition of the IBC in 2000 included an option for the AHJ to approve alternative design methods. Additionally, other parts of the world have implemented performance-based design for decades, such as in Australia and New Zealand. 


As new technology emerges, fire and life safety strategies must adapt. Model building codes will continue to be updated, but with three-year cycles, technology and fire safety challenges often outpace code revisions.

To add further delay, adopting the latest model building codes can take several more years. The performance-based fire safety design option is a critical component of building codes and can provide flexibility in building design while maintaining an optimized level of fire safety.

Performance Based Fire Protection Engineering goes above and beyond to provide you with the ultimate fire protection and life safety solutions. Our custom-tailored, performance-based designs exceed prescriptive codes, giving you a level of protection and peace of mind that's second to none. Get in touch with us today to find out more about how we can help you create the perfect fire protection and life safety plan for your public or private sector project.