Presented by: Fred Malven

Things change—often slowly; but, sometimes, abruptly.  Interior design’s efforts to certify its public health, safety and welfare (HSW) role have exemplified both.  Not so very long ago, convincing legislators of interior design’s role in the protection of public health, safety and welfare was often an uphill battle, and not always successful.  But, that situation is poised for a dramatic change.  The incidence of serious fires has declined over the past quarter century.  However, recent research by Underwriter’s Laboratories  presents an alarming prognosis for the future (Dalton, Backstrom and Kerber, 2011).  It warns of the potentially dire consequences of continued “optimization”– trying to do more with less.  Collectively, UL’s research points to a proliferation of large, light-weight, inadequately fire protected structures, incapable of resisting fire in their own highly volatile interior furnishings and materials. It underscores interior design’s significance as a participant in the battle against fire in the built environment, placing the field squarely in the front lines of the battle.  As such, it signals the need for new, more in-depth efforts to fully prepare the profession to meet this escalating responsibility.

This paper reports on a multi-year project aimed at enhancing the designer’s familiarity with design factors essential to fire prevention and control.  It asked several questions: 1) what interior components are most significantly involved in fatal residential fires and what factors contribute to their involvement; 2) what can be done to demystify and clarify the designer’s role in eliminating or controlling this threat; and 3) by what means can designers best be prepared to meet or exceed their fire safety responsibilities? 

The project involved several phases.  First, it employed content analysis of two national data-bases that compile reports of fires and their causes.  In 2011, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) was reviewed for narrative reports of fatal residential fires where interior furnishings and materials were cited as significant factors.  For the years involved, an estimated 450 fatalities per year were projected to have caused by fires where [mostly upholstered] seating was the first item ignited.  Mattresses, bedding, drapery and other loose soft goods played a similar role.  Of particular significance to this study, analysis identified eight distinctive fire safety principles related to interior contents as fire “fuels:” a) quantity, b) volatility, c) fuel contribution, d) fuel form, e) concentration, f) vertical placement, g) orientation, and h) enclosure. In 2012, a replication study was undertaken based on data in the United States Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).  Although this data gave less detailed attention to interior components, the eight fire safety principles identified earlier were validated by being able to comprehensively categorize all of the scenarios found in the NFIRS data.

Focusing on the eight principles emerging from content analysis, the project moved in a more expressive direction-- development of a uniform method of introducing and explaining the principles. First, inspired by a short section of William Pena’s book, Problem Seeking (1977), a simple, concise, one-paragraph definition/explanation was developed for each principle. 

Each explanation was augmented by one to four informative illustrations.  Finally, following the precedent of Edward Allen’s book, Architectural Detailing (2008), a unified set of symbols was developed to reinforce the meaning of each principle and serve as a prompt to summon its recall.  As a final step, the information developed was submitted for validation by the faculty of Scotland’s prestigious Centre for Fire Safety Engineering, University of Edinburgh, after which some illustrations were revised.


  • Alexander, C., et al. (1977). A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Allen, E. (1993). Architectural Detailing. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Pena, W. (1977). Problem-Seeking: An Architectural Programming Primer. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Dalton, J., Buckstrom, R. & Keerber, S. (2011). Structural Collapse: The Hidden Danger in Residential Fires. Fire Engineering, 87(1), 1-12.

Appendix File 1