A Guide To Fire Safety In Open Plan Layouts

Open plan layouts are rising in popularity; however, these spaces pose numerous challenges when incorporating fire safety measures into building design. Nigel Ward explains the key considerations to be made by architects and building engineers alike.

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Large open spaces boast multiple benefits, such as offering users flexibility and freedom to alter a space as necessary. It is no wonder that the popularity of open plan layouts has increased, with advantages including significant energy savings as a result of more natural light and a more social, collaborative environment for offices, due to the lack of dividing walls. Unfortunately, there are fire safety risks associated with an open plan environment due to the absence of physical barriers.

Should a fire break out in an open plan space, the spread of smoke and flames is much more rapid than it would be in a smaller or compartmented area. This risk, of excessive inhalation of gas, smoke or toxic fumes to occupants, could be reduced by containing the spread of fire and protecting evacuation routes with implementation of fire-resistant barriers into a building’s design.

There are numerous reasons for creating an open plan building design and many examples that use such spaces. Those involved in the events industry, for example, will utilize a range of open spaces, whether it be for exhibitions or networking. In offices, a shift to flexible working patterns and a growing preference for the ability to rearrange office desks and other furniture have contributed to more open plan office environments.

Building Compartmentation

Because the spread of fire in these spaces could be increased by the lack of physical barriers, active fire safety protections such as smoke alarms and sprinkler systems should be used in conjunction with passive protection like fire doors and fire curtain systems to ensure compliance to fire regulations and offer maximum levels of safety in the event of a fire. The issues highlighted with open plan layouts need to be addressed for a building to adhere to the 2018 International Fire Code (ICC IFC-2018) and the International Building Code 2018 (ICC IBC 2018).

A building must be divided into compartments in order to prevent the spread of fire, which are marked by the implementation of fire-resistant barriers, such as fire doors and curtains. Open plan spaces pose specific challenges because it is impossible to utilize fire doors, due to the lack of walls. Thankfully, where fire doors cannot be implemented, fire curtains may be installed.

Fire resistant barriers, such as curtains, are implemented to suppress the growth and development of flames and smoke within a building, protect escape routes and help minimize the risk to human life. Fire curtains can be utilized where the spread of smoke and fire could be more rapid, for example through a lift shaft.

Fire-Resistant Barriers

The main purpose of a fire-resistant barrier, such as curtains, is to suppress the growth and development of flames and smoke within a building, to protect escape routes and help minimize the risk to human life. Open spaces and critical escape routes such as lift openings and lobbies, can utilize fire curtains to control the spread of fire, which could spread more rapidly, for example through the lift shaft.

A fire curtain is a highly robust piece of fire-resistant material which is stored discretely in a steel headbox within the ceiling. In the event of a fire, the curtain is released by a trigger from a fire alarm or local detector, causing it to fall vertically via gravity. Once deployed, it obscures the space, acting as a crucial physical barrier between the fire and the escape routes. Unlike fire doors, curtains can be installed in a number of different locations where there is a lack of walls, and can be used to replace a non-load bearing wall and fire rated glazing. In open plan layouts, the installation of a fire curtain enables a building to still meet the relevant regulations.

One of the inherent drawbacks of a fire barrier is the inability to see beyond the barrier to assess the extent of a fire. Therefore, where a fire curtain is installed in place of a door, a vision panel could be extremely beneficial. In an emergency, first responders are required to evacuate individuals from a building, therefore, fire curtains with a vision panel are likely to be a huge aid to first responders. Adding a window-like panel into the curtain, means that once a fire curtain is deployed, first responders are able to identify flames and smoke, and the associated risks, on the other side, which could potentially save precious time in an evacuation.

What to Look for: Certification & Integrity

A fire-resistant curtain is designed to withstand the heat and effects of the blaze for a specific length of time. This duration is specified to enable enough time for an effective evacuation with the necessary checks of the building, in order to minimize the risk to human life.

With the help of certification and testing, a fire barrier is designed to withstand the heat and effects of a fire for a specific length of time. The required duration of resistance is specified to enable an effective evacuation with enough time to make the necessary checks of the building, in order to minimize the risk to human life.

NFPA 80 is an important standard, providing comprehensive guidance on specification and installation. Aimed at specifiers, manufacturers, installers and facilities managers, the standard covers key aspects, such as a proficient installation and ongoing maintenance of the fire barrier, which must be achieved to illustrate competence and quality.

For the fire curtain industry, UL10D is the key testing certification to look for in terms of compliance and product integrity. The level of integrity used to describe a product illustrates its fire resistance level. With fire resistance and integrity of components used in building construction facing increased scrutiny, there is a higher degree of focus on the integrity of every product when exposed to fire. This certification provides assurance to end users and building occupiers that the product has been subject to, and passed, thorough third-party testing against a set of rigorous criteria.

The benefits of having a vision panel in fire-resistant barriers are clear. However, where they appear in curtains there must be no compromise on compliance, quality and the product’s resistance level. Selecting quality products that have undergone thorough testing and are compliant with the regulations, provides assurance to specifiers and facilities managers that the fire safety measures in place are of the highest standard required to preserve human life.

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