"Design is not just about decorating!"
Decorating is the "frosting" but first comes the tough stuff
which can include health, safety and welfare.
Early on I mentioned that occasionally I would write about
codes and safety issues as related to interiors. This letter will attempt
to create an awareness of fire prevention as well as some of the code
aspects of finishes that designers and architects must consider during
the course of a project.
When I was a child we lived next door to my grandmother
who was awakened and rescued by my Labrador retriever when her house
burned due to a coal furnace fire. And about twenty plus years ago, on the
same morning the Challenger blew up, I lost a horse in a barn fire that
killed seven additional horses. Those traumatic experiences left me with
an abiding fear and respect for fire. After the barn fire, my first
client whose husband was a heavy smoker, ended up with Class A fire rated
upholstery fabrics on her family room furniture! And back in the day,
those fabrics may have been functional but were not pretty!
So last week, when offered the opportunity to attend a
Continuing Education seminar conducted by the DC Chapter of the American
Society of Interior Designers on “Interior Finish & Fire Resistance
for Interior Designers,” I jumped at the chance. This is a brief overview
of that seminar. Read on.
Presented by Chip Carson of Carson Associates, Inc., Fire Protection
Engineers & Code Consultants
of Warrenton, the course was based on NFPA
101, Life Safety Code and the International Building Code. It
gave a history of how codes came into existence and acknowledged that
they are constantly evolving due to differences in circumstances,
technology, materials and finishes. The purpose of fire codes is to try
to slow down fire to allow people to escape.
Virginia is one of only eleven states that have a
statewide building code. However, it is remains necessary for designers
and architects to determine what edition of the codes are used in their
local jurisdictions and if any local amendments have been put in place
that will affect a project.
The seminar covered interior finishes testing and codes
for residential, health care, hospitality, retail, office, education
design, etc., all of which may fall under different occupancy categories.
The definition of occupancy is determined by WHO the occupants might be.
For instance, at the college level, large “assemblies” will have
different requirements than those of day care centers where the cognitive
abilities of children are very different from those of college age
Interior finishes can be a major factor in fire
development. Mr. Carson’s instructive information states that, “Of critical importance
to the Code’s intention of regulating interior finish items is the
presumption that materials will be used in their intended orientation.
For example, carpeting tested in accordance with the flooring radiant
panel test is acceptable only for use on a floor. In the recent past,
there has been a proliferation in the use of carpet and carpet-like
materials as wall and ceiling finish materials. Correspondingly, there is
a growing history of fire incidents in which the application of flooring
finish items on walls and ceiling has been a significant factor in the
Many recent code regulations are the result of fires
started through ignorance. Examples are the famous hotel fires of the MGM
Grand and the Las Vega Hilton in the 1980’s where carpeting, applied
vertically on walls, as well as curtain fabric were contributing factors,
leading to major code changes limiting the use of textile materials for
walls and ceilings. More recently, since the Warwick, Rhode Island night
club disaster, the LSC (Life Safety Code) no longer permits the use of
sprayed acoustical foam without a cover. In the Warwick situation the
owners, without permits, sprayed foam on the walls for sound deadening
effects. The walls were then ignited when “pyrotechnic” entertainers
doused them with an accelerant. 100 people died.
Materials and technology have changed dramatically from 40
or 50 years ago when most fabrics were made from organic fibers such as
cotton, wool and silk which had a far slower flame spread than the
petroleum produced materials of today. 40 – 50 years ago flashover took
10-15 minutes giving people more time to escape. Today it is 2-3 ½
minutes. (Think about all those sheer, inexpensive, “meltable” polyester
drapery panels in so many homes…one would hope that they aren’t near
candles. In addition, the flashover time of a dry Christmas tree can
engulf a living room in about 35 seconds, leaving hardly enough time to
While fabric swatches with flame retardant certifications
are necessary for new
commercial building occupancies, it is virtually impossible to enforce
codes for upholstery use except for health care facilities where
regulation is stringent.
With that in mind...
While not about materials the following points are
important factors for escaping fires:
1.) The single most important thing is a WORKING SMOKE ALARM.
If battery operated change those batteries every six months (spring and
fall). Test it once a month. Get a new alarm if yours is more than 10
years old. A smoke alarm should activate in 35-45 seconds – flashover can
occur in 2 – 3 ½ minutes!
2.) Have an EVACUATION
PLAN. Establishing a meeting place outside the house is
critical because carbon monoxide can kill. Get kids to write out the plan
and practice it with them. Have an alternative escape route, as well.
Children, up to teen years, may hide from noise so they should know what
to do when they hear the alarm…there are new alarms that can record a
parent’s voice which can give commands like, “Get out now!”
ESCAPE ROUTES for the disabled or elderly who may become
4.) Forget the fire extinguishers…time is of the essence and carbon
monoxide poisoning kills…do not go back in looking for the cat.
5.) If you are traveling and staying in a high rise hotel, check things
out and establish an escape route. Make sure that you know where the exit
doors are and that the doors to the stairway are accessible. They should
not be open but must be operable. Stairways are in a firewall protected
6.) If you are shopping, dining, or overnighting in a building in an
historic district check to make sure that the exterior doors open out
(for egress code) or if they open in, which is typical of old buildings
and can block egress. Historic buildings are often exempt from