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Vol. LX, No. 5
March 07, 2008

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New Stairwell Coming
Upgrades Under Way for Bldg. 31’s C Wing

Panoramic images of the Bldg. 31C and B wings show area before construction.
Panoramic images of the Bldg. 31C and B wings show area before construction after.
Panoramic images of the Bldg. 31C and B wings show area before construction (top) and after.

If you’ve ever been in the conference rooms on the 6th floor of Bldg. 31 during a fire drill, you’ve probably noticed how congested an emergency evacuation can get and how long it takes to exit the building. Stairwells are clogged and elevators are off-limits. It’s not a safe situation.

The congestion is due in part to a building outliving the rules that govern its safety.

The C wing, where the conference rooms are located, was completed in 1968. At the time, the building was well within the fire code. However, under today’s life safety standards, the building does not have sufficient evacuation exits for the number of occupants it supports.

The problem stems mainly from the unique nature of the C wing. As NIH Fire Marshal J.P. McCabe explains, “Building conference facilities on the top floor of what is technically considered a high rise building is unique.” Apparently, when the C wing was designed, there was a desire to build large conference rooms on the top floor at the north and south ends to accommodate expansive views and allow the sizable rooms to exist without the obstruction of support columns. Additional columns would have been necessary if the facilities were located on a lower level of the building.

Facts, Figures on 31C Fire Stairwell Extension

  • Cost: $3.6 million for phase II
  • Completion Date: Fall 2008
  • Size: Length of new extension will be 11 meters (approximately 36 feet).
  • Location: North side of the C wing, close to the existing elevators servicing the B and C wing corridors.
  • Elevators will remain in service throughout the construction.
  • Noise will be most noticeable when pilings are driven into the ground in the initial weeks of excavation and during a later phase when the walls of the building will be opened up to allow for expansion.
  • Regular updates will be provided to executive officers, administrative staff and events management/conference services in Bldg. 31, including proactive alerts when noise will be excessive.
  • Events management staff are working with customers to minimize the disruption when booking conference space.
  • For technical questions about the Bldg. 31C Life Safety Improvement Project, contact the ORS Division of the Fire Marshal at (301) 496-0487.
  • For general questions about the project, contact the ORS Information Line at or (301) 594-6677.

To address this and other issues in 31C, NIH initiated a major Life Safety Improvement Project in two phases. In the late 1990s, phase I included: the addition of automatic sprinkler protection in the C wing; a continuous 2-hour fire barrier (fire doors) separating the C wing from the B wing; a decrease in the maximum allowable number of occupants in the conference rooms; and an additional circulating corridor for the large conference rooms to improve emergency egress.

In February, the Office of Research Facilities and the Office of Research Services began phase II. This includes an additional exterior but enclosed fire stairwell to improve emergency evacuation. The added stairwell is considered “mandatory for the continued use of the conference facilities,” McCabe said.

Although noise from construction and other inconveniences might cause some to wish the project never started, there are other benefits in addition to improving safety and reducing fire hazard. For example, unlike other stairwells in the C wing, the new stairwell will exit directly to the outside. Adding the stairwell to the exterior of the building won’t take away any existing office space that might have been claimed had the stairwell been built internally. In addition, all floors below the 6th will have another exit. In the long term, the potential exists to add two more elevators and increased mechanical and electrical capacity to serve future needs. The A and B wings will not be left out; installation of a new, state-of-the-art fire alarm system is in the final stages for all of 31. Eventually, 31A and B will also have complete, automatic sprinkler protection.

Over the years, there have been discussions about tearing down Bldg. 31 instead of undertaking major improvements. However, in tight budgetary times, funds are not available to construct a new, replacement facility. A major study under way by the Office of Research Facilities will identify a long-term strategy for extending the use of the building. NIHRecord Icon

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