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Merging Aesthetics & Safety in Interiors

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Interior design is more than just the ambient enhancement of an interior space. There is now greater emphasis on safety aspect of interiors to protect building occupants and assets from man-made and natural hazards. Realizing the importance of combining safety strategies within the interior design systems and materials, Buildotech along with Knauf AMF India, manufacturers of high performance ceilings, organized a panel discussion on the topic of “Aesthetic and safety aspects of interior ceilings & wall systems”.

The discussion held at New Delhi this month comprised a panel of eminent building industry professional including structural engineer S.K Nandi from architectural and engineering firm CP Kukreja & Associates, architect Tarun Walecha, Director R.L Walecha and Associates and Teddy D’souza, Director Operations, Knauf AMF India. Joining them in discussion was A.K Sharma, Director, Delhi Fire Services.

The discussion focussed on the safety precautions that need to be taken in terms of materials and systems employed in the interiors to prevent or reduce fire accidents in a building. It started with the presentation by Andreas Riedl, Sales Director, Asia-Pacific & Gulf of Knauf AMF where he highlighted the advanced ceiling materials that are made from new generation bio-soluble mineral wool, perlite, clay and starch with excellent non-combustion and fire resistance properties. In addition to its functional aspects, more than 38 surface designs like metal, timber & individual motif textures & patterns satisfy the need of professionals and owners of ceiling product that can provide aesthetics without compromising of occupant’s safety.

Taking forward the debate, Nandi pointed out that professionals when talking about fire safety generally considered the whole building not specifically considering the various elements of the structure such as the interior wall systems, ceilings, doors etc. which are the critical factors in ensuring occupants safety and evacuation in case of fire. An interior designer, sometimes as per owner’s wishes puts in design components like partitions, ceilings without evaluating the fire resistance of the structures, which makes the fire safety norms questionable as well as putting people safety at risk.

Sharma adding to Nandi’s comments said that the most important specification for any interior material was to be non-combustible. If non-combustible materials are used, it can greatly help in minimizing the scale and extent of fire damage and loss of life. He gave examples of tragic fire accidents like Uphaar cinema fire case in Delhi about 20-25 years back, Calcutta hospital fire 10-15 years back and recent Mantralaya fire in Mumbai last year, which are still affecting lives of scores of people. According to him platforms like this gives an opportunity for designers, architects, planners and manufacturers to come together to have a dialogue and offer optimum solutions for building safety systems. He called upon the architects to work with the law enforcing agencies in planning, constructing and maintaining the buildings to ensure life and fire safety.

It is imperative that architects plan and construct a building, manufacturers produce materials and service providers maintain the premises in accordance with the safety standards. He said, “While, fire department has to make sure the norms are followed, designers, planners, architects and other building industry professionals need to work together to enforce specifications. Fire & life safety is job that we all need to share together in erecting the and maintaining the building.” An important aspect in fire safety is the fire agency’s response mechanism and the fire fighting which many a time is hampered by fit-out materials used in a building. As Sharma reiterated that the fire safety codes are very clear, adequate & upgraded from time to time to keep up with technology advancements; it is the mind-set of the owners and sometimes the designers, due to which aesthetics overshadows life safety aspect. Products that give toxic fumes and combustible create havoc for fire fighters, as they have to encounter smoke, materials burning freely and false ceiling falling down on occupants.

Nandi explaining the nature of fire, attributed three main factors as cause- materials prone to fire, oxygen in the air, reasons like short circuit, kitchen fire etc. He said, “Most importantly, the environment has to be fire safe for the occupants which depends on the choice of materials. The two principles on which fire safety depends are reaction to fire & resistance to fire. Reaction is the combustion and speed of burning of fire, exact opposite is the fire resistance, which is the rate at which fire spreads within standard time from one area to another. The question one has to ask is what the fire resistance of the product is. A high performance product if installed improperly is dangerous and accident-prone. How do we ensure integrity of the product?”

In case of ceilings as he rightly put it, it is not only the ceiling tiles but the suspension or support system is also an important consideration. Is the structural system good enough to hold the ceiling together to provide escape time? Nandi held manufactures responsible for ensuring correct installation of materials and products for their optimum efficacy. Having said that, he also questioned the industry professionals if they were responsible enough to recommend more expensive yet fire safe product to their clients and bold enough to specify the same in their tenders. Most of the architects today specify a cheaper product under pressure from the client even if it means compromising safety. On the other hand, manufacturers too do not provide standards for installation and specifications for ancillary materials like for insulation, which later may contribute to generating toxic smoke that kills more than the fire itself. What’s more, as more project management agencies are being employed, diluting the role of an architect, it has become essential that guidelines from manufacturers should be clearly outlined & standards specified.

Tarun while agreeing with Nandi & Sharma brought to fore another aspect that is the role of building owners. As he stated, “Designing a building is a team work in which client is a major stakeholder. An architect can propose certain material or design but owner choices do become a limiting factor and sometimes aesthetics takes over functionality. Some of the reasons can be lack of awareness about the availability of products that offer aesthetics as well as safety features, architects role being limited to only providing designs & drawings and decentralization of construction process where PMC companies handle the execution.” Another point he made was that in commercial spaces like offices, many companies that move in and out frequently are only interested in a product for interior fit-out that will last a certain period like 3-4 years and are not concerned with the life span of the product. In such cases, they would look at the ROI and ignore the functional safety, not thinking that accident can happen anytime.

Teddy summarized the challenges as pointed out by other panellists

• First & foremost safety

• Modernization of products to offer aesthetics

• Need for control over installation of product

• Ensuring integrity of installation – in both beauty & functionality

He put the concerns of professionals as – selection, application & maintaining of interior material and system. In case of fire, issues of combustion and VOC are the other two distress areas as raised by the panellists. Addressing these concerns he says, “One way to ensure safety standards is for the manufacturers to commit to third party tests & certifications. For example, AMF ceiling tiles have UL certification for zero smoke spread. The tiles made with addition of clay ensure that at 1000-1700 degree temperature exposure also, they will not give out smoke. The clay becomes harder when burned thereby keeping the tile together and providing fire resistance. Additionally, new grid ceiling designs with curves, patterns and textures like metal, wood etc. are exceeding the boundaries of design and functionality providing architects aesthetic options. Also, paint used for AMF ceiling tiles is not acrylic but water based due to which there are no toxic fumes on burning. Thirdly, the system on which this tile is installed, instead of traditional 600×600 panel system, is two & a half metre x 300mm planks without suspension in between for areas like corridors which are in most cases the escape routes. The bigger planks give 30-120min escape time and not fall down. Many companies are opting for these systems and is a step forward in a right direction. In terms of maintaining the integrity of the installation, the learning from this platform is that the companies should not deliver just the product but should contribute to the installation process as well and offer the entire system as package.”

One of the professional delegate raised doubts about the quality of education system offered by the design institutes. The students have no exposure to safety aspects of various building elements, more so the ceilings which are completely ignored. Nandi suggested that manufacturers should take an initiative of visiting architectural colleges to make them aware of the new products, fabrication process and challenges of installation to create awareness. At the same time, information about the product and installation systems, safety standards and specifications should be freely available for the professionals to refer. Visits to factories by students to see how materials are made and what are their properties can also make a lot of difference in educating young professionals.

Sharma conferred that colleges invited the fire officials and they held workshops for students to create awareness about the fire safety. Moreover, when professionals come to the fire officials with building designs & plans, they open heartedly discuss the changes required. But, he agreed that a lot more needed to be done.

Teddy too felt that there was a need to get into the minds of new architects before they started working professionally. He mentioned about his company initiatives of visiting architectural offices to educate fresh architects about the new ceiling systems and training them. He said, such interactions helped create relationship and trust between the architects and manufacturers to work out best possible solutions for building design & implementation.

Another delegate stated the problem of shell & core buildings like malls, shopping complexes, and office complexes where an architect designs the building and hands it over to the client. These buildings are later occupied by varied tenants or buyers who hire their own designers for retrofitting. In case of a fire accident, who is responsible? The architect who signed the documents or designers who installed inadequate materials and systems?

An architect present in the audience, referred to the process followed in Dubai where even interior drawings and designs needed sanctions before execution. That puts pressure on client and professional alike to not compromise on functionality or to cut corners when it comes to interior fit outs. Nandi adding to the conversation again asked manufacturers to work together with each other as well as architects and designers to create effective standards and guidelines to be followed, while using the product or the system as is the practice in other countries. Another delegate suggested that fire department should not certify empty buildings. Only the final occupied building complete with interior fit-outs should be certified as fire safe.

Sharma agreed and suggested third party certifications as an effective tool to ensure compliance with standards. However, he felt that this might lead to involvement of too many agencies in the process of getting approvals. He also informed that already buildings like multiplexes were certified as fire safe after complete fit-out only, when they were ready for screening. The same process can be extended to other building types as well.

Tarun proposed stringent penalties for deviating from codes and standards so that professionals or owners do not take a easy way out. Similarly, the education institutes need to take initiative in inculcating the sense of responsibility in terms of designing functionally safe buildings right at the level of teaching.

The panellists as well as the delegates agreed that someone had to make a start and discussions like these among the design community and with fellow professional would help exchange of ideas and hopefully working out solutions that could not only give the country aesthetically beautiful buildings but also safe and healthy environment for living.


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