If you design a piece of furniture for mass production, you picture it sitting in a showroom, or coming off of the production line, or perhaps populating some swank living room in an online catalog. What you don't picture is your piece of furniture completely engulfed in flames while the house around it burns down. But house fires happen, of course, and the modern materials in our sofas, chairs and beds have changed the way those fires burn now compared to fifty years ago.
The traditional way to fight a fire is to first start punching holes in a building, creating vents that allow heat and smoke to escape. But as this article in the Times reports, the New York City Fire Department is finding that this practice may need to change due to the high plastic contents of our homes these days.
Furniture was once made of wood and cushions stuffed with cotton. Those things burn at a certain rate. As cotton goes away and things like poly-fill take their place, the burn rate increases aggressively. The result is that a modern-day fire burns so hot that it sucks up all the oxygen in a room before it finishes burning everything in sight, since a fire needs oxygen. In this situation, when firefighters begin to ventilate a building, the sudden rush of oxygen sends the smoldering fire into overdrive.
The NYFD is seeking solutions to this particularly modern problem—by buying up liquidated hotel furniture and filling abandoned row houses with them. Next week they will set the houses on fire (they're located on Governor's Island, well away from any population centers) and experiment with different techniques for containing the blaze.
It's unlikely that modern-day furniture designers and manufacturers will be swayed in their materials selections by these findings, but we think any designer will be interested to hear about unintended consequences of decisions we make during the design process.