Health and safety is a major responsibility for interior designers, said Aidan Bell of EnviroBuild

Health and safety is a major responsibility for interior designers, said Aidan Bell of EnviroBuild

Design vs Safety: How can we find the right balance?

Sulafa Tower Fire in Dubai Marina in 2018.
Image by Patrick Littlejohn
Sulafa Tower Fire in Dubai Marina in 2018.

Aidan Bell, co-founder of sustainable building material supplier EnviroBuild, gives tips on how to strike a balance between design and safety.

Over the years, people’s concern for safety in their own homes has drastically increased and the government has made it a priority to respond.

After years of scientific research, it was discovered that asbestos can cause respiratory problems, and, as a result, the material can no longer be used in buildings built after the year 2000. Another tragedy, the Grenfell Tower fire, led to the death of 72 people, resulting in a tightening of fire safety regulations.  These legislations and many others were put in place for the health, safety and welfare of homeowners, occupants, employees, and residents. While these are great and necessary, they can often form an obstacle for interior designers as they are left with the difficulty of balancing design and safety.

As architects, engineers and contractors are often credited with making a space functional and safe, the interior designer’s role is often confused with that of an interior decorator and they are often perceived to be left with the aesthetics of an indoor space. Yet, ensuring the safety of residents and the health conditions of a space is as big of a responsibility for an interior designer as it is for any other person involved in a building or renovation project. The British Institute of Interior Design’s Code of Conduct even states that interior designers should consider the health, safety and welfare of the public at all times. This is, however, a code and thus only advises interior designers to act ethically.

#When choosing products there are two major safety aspects to consider: its toxicity and flammability. This is where the problem arises. Many aesthetically pleasing products may be more flammable or toxic than those that aren’t as visually attractive so it can be difficult to achieve a beautiful space while still being safe.

The toxicity and flammability of products have led to the most injuries, diseases and deaths over the years, but because of this there are also many regulations. While it may seem counter beneficial, it can help an interior designer to make a straightforward decision.

There’s then, however, the issue of creating a design that the client will like as there may not be any products on the market that fit the regulations, but this issue is often resolved by the manufacturers themselves. Their aim is to sell products, and this can only happen if there is a demand. After a change in regulations, they are not only pushed to create products that fit the new regulations but will also be wanted by customers.

After the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 buildings in the UK that are taller than 18 meters and built after the 20th of February 2019 are required to have non-combustible cladding and balconies. This meant that many decking products already on the market had to be changed to comply with the law. Many businesses, including EnviroBuild, thus set out to try and make a safe yet nonetheless beautiful alternative.

Asbestos was also for a long time used in several products found commonly in residential homes. As there was an abundance of it, could easily be moulded into a variety of products and had the attractive benefit of being resistant to fire, electricity and chemical combustion, it seemed like the perfect material to use for products ranging from tiles to textiles. As we now know, asbestos can lead to various diseases and infections in the respiratory system and in the UK the decision was to ban the product in the construction of houses built after 2000. Alternatives had to be used and manufacturers created them because there was a demand.

Not only new regulations can push these changes, but often having a non-flammable version of a product, or prioritising safety can also be a great selling point for many companies. Ultimately, this can lead to a variety of different designs and features of the same product for an interior designer to choose from, helping them to be safe and achieve a beautifully designed space.

Yet, it isn’t always up to legislations to push interior designers in the right direction or for manufacturers to serve the ideal product on a silver platter. Striking the balance between safety and design can often be more difficult than that.

In recent years, mould and mildew have formed problems in many homes leading to widespread respiratory problems. Legislations on this issue are not as straightforward and it’s often up to the interior designer to make the right call. It is therefore important to remain educated and stay up to date on various products with the same core purpose.

Looking at indoor flooring, for example, one could choose a natural hardwood floor or a soft carpet, yet these can be difficult to clean and, when wet, they are also more likely to rot. Vinyl tiles, which are known to be low-maintenance, easy to clean and waterproof, would be a good alternative, but historically they are known to not be the most visually pleasing product. However, if keeping informed about the variety of products, an interior designer could recognise that there are wood and stone style vinyl flooring tiles which feel and look realistic yet maintain the qualities that make them so beneficial.

Despite the legislations, manufacturers’ innovations, and trying to remain educated, it can still be difficult to make the right decision. When in doubt, simply ask yourself the question ‘can my decision of using a certain interior material largely contribute to death, injuries, or diseases?’ If it does, it may be better to find an alternative.

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