Alarm belles

Essential but traditionally dull, emergency lighting is fast becoming an area for attractive and innovative design, reports design group Priestman Goode A few years ago, if you mentioned emergency lighting to an architect, you would be received with appre

Essential but traditionally dull, emergency lighting is fast becoming an area for attractive and innovative design, reports design group Priestman Goode

A few years ago, if you mentioned emergency lighting to an architect, you would be received with apprehension and alarm. Emergency lighting provides light when the mains supply fails, normally in an emergency situation, and leads you safely to an escape route. It also illuminates fire fighting equipment, fire alarm call points and exit signs. Most people are not aware that emergency lighting exists, but it is required by law in all business premises and buildings used by the public and brings major headaches to architects and interior designers.

The most widely used and economical emergency lighting systems are “stored energy systems”, using secondary batteries specifically designed for long-term standby use.

Because these lights are only used in an emergency, it would not seem necessary to worry too much about what they look like, the rationale being that nobody ever pays much attention to them. Would you stop to criticise the lighting design when you are fleeing a building in a fire or looking for the emergency exit?

Unfortunately for architects, they have had considerable difficulties in getting clients to understand that, by law, public access buildings must have emergency lighting back-up.

Architectural practice Gibberds is involved in a fair amount of hospital design, including psychiatric hospitals, where emergency and safety standards have to be rigidly adhered to. Director John Mitham says: “We don’t buy emergency light fittings any more – we’ve got round the problem by choosing fittings we like the look of that are capable of being converted to emergency lighting”.

Rasshied Din, managing director of design group Din Associates, says: “Emergency lighting is a very difficult subject because obviously it needs to be seen, but many fittings are so horrible that clients don’t want them. These days the fittings that you see around are much better than they used to be; at least you can get edge-illuminated types and very discreet ones. The more subtle they are the better, from our point of view.”

JSB Lighting, a market leader in this product area, was one of the first companies to identify the problems architects were having and asked Priestman Goode to help it find a solution.The brief was to design a range of lights to be cost-effective in terms of manufacture and assembly and easy to install and maintain. So our first project for JSB was to design a range of simple emergency light fittings which can be used both in the domestic and commercial market. The result, named the Fairlite, is a low-profile product that seeks to bring modern design to functional lighting.

So why did Trevor Boxer, technical director of JSB, decide to work with an external product design consultancy on this project?

“A design consultancy is capable of being more innovative than your in-house designer and can generate more ideas. It can put two or three designers on the job to throw ideas around and come up with more innovative products,” he explains.

“The reason I went for those particular designs was because of the roundness of shape and the compactness of space – an attractive low-profile luminaire. They take the new 2D compact fluorescent light sources, and being a square format rather than long like a pencil, you can get them into a round or square fitting more easily. So the luminaires used the 2D fluorescent compact layout to its full advantage. They are also very easy to clip together and install.”

The most commonly used regulations relating to emergency lighting are BS 5266 and ICEL 1003. However, some local authorities or specifying bodies may add their own specific requirements. The minimum space allowed between each light varies depending on factors such as ceiling heights. There is also a forthcoming European standard PRN 1838 which requires higher lighting levels.

A new factor that could influence emergency lighting standards is the current research by the University of Reading into Special Needs Emergency Lighting. In the UK, 1 person in 60 is blind or partially sighted and has severe problems getting around environments that have not catered for their needs. None of the current legislation on emergency lighting takes into account the partially sighted user.

Generally speaking, partial sightedness can be classified into three groups: loss of central vision; loss of peripheral vision (tunnel vision); and all over retina failure resulting in patchy vision. An equal proportion from each of the three groups has been selected for this research.

Geoff Cook and Keith Bright of the Department of Construction Management at Reading University are researching emergency lighting for the partially sighted.

Experiments involve subjects passing through a full-scale simulated building with various types of emergency lighting and wayfinding systems.

Cook says: “We are testing emergency lighting that currently meets the British standards and so far it has performed reasonably well.” On the other hand, photoluminescent tape that glows in the dark didn’t go down very well. Most of the partially sighted subjects couldn’t see it as lighting levels were so low.”

According to Lou Beddocks,UK technical director at Thorn Lighting, there is also a debate raging at present about emergency signage. European standards dictate that pictograms must now be used rather than words. But which pictures? In the UK we have a man running inside a box to signal an emergency exit, whereas in Europe the man is running towards the box. The debate has apparently reached frenzy point.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, how does JSB’s Boxer see the future of emergency lighting developing? “I expect we will see more inconspicuous designs with more efficient light sources, reflectors and light controls, to achieve maximum spacing in emergency conditions,” he says. So, the future looks bright.

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