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Are occupants people?

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The way we react to fire, or rather don't react to fire, so putting ourselves at greater risk, throws interesting light on the assumptions that legislators and others make about our behaviour in buildings. Research after fires frequently shows that we can take a significant amount of time to disengage from what we are doing before we respond to an alarm. Time for escape is taken up, possibly with fatal consequences. Reluctance to disengage may be strong, for example in a casino, or after waiting 45 minutes to reach the front of an airline check-in queue. Similarly, we often try to escape via the way we entered the building, even if that leads us toward the fire.

Jonathan Sime, speaking at a recent Architecture Research Forum on building evaluation, suggested that the current view of escape simply in terms of how long it takes to reach the nearest point of safety is symptomatic of a too narrow view of human behaviour. We need to include a broader understanding of people and how they relate to the specific building they are in. Sime uses the idea of 'occupants' rather than 'people' to suggest such engagement of people in and with buildings.

The dimensions of occupancy include location, the particular space, time, the current activity, the person's role and experience. In situations such as fire, critical aspects of the built form would include the information dimensions of the 'access' it provides - ie how much information is available to the occupant on surrounding events - and the occupant's 'exposure' - that is how conspicuous the occupant is to others.

One potential of such a fuller picture of course, is better prediction of how people will behave. However for legislation, say on fires, there are questions about how this can be applied. On the one hand regulations should embody realistic expectations of how people will behave. On the other hand, trying to make regulations too particular, too contingent on local activities and places, could make them unenforcibly complex. Paul Stollard, who runs the Scottish Building Standards, noted this problem in a current eu draft for development, trying to consider response (disengagement) times as part of escape. For such critical situations can improved understanding do more than lead to a better-measured set of escape time norms?


At the same meeting, Phil Jones of The Welsh School of Architecture, provided a round-up on modelling the built environment, which included indications of the spreading use of space syntax. At the city scale, this understanding of preferred routes is being used in forecasting traffic patterns. Down at the building scale, Cardiff researchers Sophia Psarra and Tadeusz Grajewski are developing space syntax to look at the design of spatial organisation and people's experience of space. The method involves mapping visual connections between interconnected spaces - see above.

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