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Playing With Fire?

Playing With Fire? Architects demand more from fire resistant products. See how architects use fire resistant products to add transparency, safety and design elements.

Playing with Fire?
Architects Demand More from Fire Resistant Products

by Ellen Rogers

Over the past decade a lot has changed with fire rated glass. Once thought of and used primarily because codes mandated their use, the market has evolved to include a range of product types that can be used in a host of applications, including interior, exterior, impact-rated-even decorative. Thanks to industry growth and technological advances, architects are finding more and more opportunities when it comes to designing with fire-rated glazing. This product segment is becoming one capable of more than just resisting or restricting fire and heat-it can even add to the overall aesthetic, design and performance of a building.

Product Evolution

“Over the past few years, fire-rated glass has evolved into a value-adding product that can provide a high level of fire- and life-safety protection while contributing to a building’s overall design,” says Jeff Razwick, vice president of business development for Technical Glass Products in Snoqualmie, Wash. “For example, manufacturing advancements have improved fire-rated glass’ surface composition and color, while fire-rated frames continue to feature thinner profile dimensions and new surface treatments to better integrate with neighboring curtainwall, door and window applications.”

Others agree that technological advances are allowing architects to incorporate fire-rated glass more and more into their designs.

“Designers are not interested in settling when it comes to fire-rated glass and framing,” points out Tim Nass, vice president of national sales with SAFTI FIRST in San Francisco. “In the past they may have been willing to accept aesthetic limitations, but not anymore. Like conventional glass we are held to the same high standards and we are being asked to provide empirical data to support our product’s ability to be fire rated, but also incorporate sound attenuation, high thermal performance, hurricane impact and in some cases even blast loads. Fire-rated manufacturers need to have multi-faceted systems that meet an array of aesthetic and physical demands.”

And as Kristi Davis, Midwest regional sales manager for Vetrotech Saint-Gobain, notes,”There has been a shift from fire-rated glass as a component to a complete system solution of fire-rated glass combined with optimal framing systems to meet the code requirements of the application.”

Architects’ Wants

When it comes to specifying fire-rated glass, architects now are looking for materials that will add to the aesthetics of their design. Innovations and changes in fire-rated glass allow them to incorporate the requirements of fire-rated materials while still creating a visually appealing design.

“Architects are looking for fire-rated glazing products that expand their design flexibility. They’re no longer content with simply using fire-rated glass in individual windows, borrowed lites and small view panes in doors,” says Razwick. “They want large, visually compatible glazed areas that extend from floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall and across multiple stories.”

He adds, “Across the board, architects seek multi-tasking products because they make accomplishing more with less a reality. In the fire-rated industry, this translates into products that can meet fire and life safety codes, transfer daylight, open up interior spaces and maintain visual consistency with surrounding applications. Fire-rated products likely to gain traction in the coming years are those that help reduce heating and cooling loads and contribute to building envelope performance.”

According to Nass, architects are seeking more and more transparency and are calling on fire-rated glass to help meet this demand.

“They are looking for more clear views and they want the products to be as transparent as possible. The architects are becoming more and more code-savvy because they want to incorporate products that open their spaces up more and more,” he says. “The architects are beginning to grasp the difference between the protective and resistive product categories and are looking for the appropriate product for the application.”

He adds that his company is starting to see more specifications calling for resistive products. “In the past, specs were really dominated by laminated ceramic. Now, there is a greater demand for products that can prevent the transfer of radiant heat.”

Diana San Diego, director of marketing with SAFTI FIRST, says it’s also common for architects to ask them to match the look of other non-rated glass and framing systems to keep a unified, consistent look.

“Fire protection that is ‘hidden in plain sight,’ so to speak,” is how she describes this. “Having large, transparent, clear view areas and framing systems available in virtually any finish always helps in terms of giving architects the maximum fire safety and design freedom.”

San Diego adds that working closely with the architect and the glazing contractor early in the project helps a great deal, especially if the situation requires some “out-of-the-box thinking.”

Daniel Poling, account manager for Schott North America Inc. in Elmsford, N.Y., says some of the most significant recent changes he’s seen relate to the aesthetics of fire-rated openings.

“Architects are demanding products that fit into the natural design of a project,” he says. “This includes unobtrusive window and framing solutions and glazing products that appear more natural.”

He adds, “We don’t see a lot of requests for new functions as much as we see requests for new forms. Architects are trying to push the design envelope by going bigger or having the fire-rated opening blend in with the rest of the glazing on a project.”

Industry suppliers also agree a desire for transparency is becoming increasingly important in architectural designs. Like traditional glass, fire-rated products can also be used in achieving this design aesthetic. Combined with a desire for more transparency, Brigitte Ross, western regional sales manager with Vetrotech Saint-Gobain, says architects are looking to combine this aesthetic with other performance features.

“The current trends are opening up buildings using transparent wall panel systems, butt-glazed options as well as combining the need for fire-rated glass with other life-safety components, such as hurricane, blast, bullet, etc.,” she says. “Architects are pushing the research and development of fire-rated glass by asking for fire-rated and life-safety combinations that until now had not been available. The result is incorporation of fire-rated glass in decorative, privacy, exterior, security and floor applications, placing a demand on product flexibility.

Hot Trends

In addition to the growing move toward transparency, there are also a number of other fire-rated glazing trends on the rise. Razwick says some of these up-and-coming trends include fire-rated glass floor systems, which allow daylight to pass deep into interior spaces, and silicone-glazed fire-rated curtainwalls, which enable design professionals to create the smooth, frame-free look of structural silicone-glazed curtainwalls.

“Fire-rated glass is also being used to supplement daylighting goals,” he adds. “When oriented correctly, it can transfer light into typically hard-to-illuminate spaces and provide views to the outside from deep within a building.”

While most commonly used in indoor settings, fire-rated glass is also moving more into exterior applications.

“Some common scenarios include buildings in close proximity to property lines, areas leading into parking garages and wildfire areas,” says San Diego.

But not all trends are aesthetic-related. San Diego says as part of an overall trend in building products, her company has seen an increased demand for American-made (or locally manufactured) products.

“Glass is no exception, and now fire-rated glass and framing can contribute to this, whether it’s meeting Buy American [requirements] or LEED MR 5.1 or 5.2 for locally produced materials,” she says.

For some, though, trends aren’t always positive. According to Poling, some current trends have been cause for concern.

“Over the last [few] months we [have been] hearing stories of non-certified companies applying films and/or laminations to products such as wired glass. I think it is important to consider where you are sourcing all of your life safety materials. Will those sources be there if and when you need support? We strongly believe, if it doesn’t have the proper stamp on it then don’t recommend using it.”

“Designers are not interested in settling when it comes to fire rated glass and framing. In the past they may have been willing to accept aesthetic limitations, but no anymore.”

–Tim Nass, SAFTI FIRST

Code Matters

While products may be evolving to offer more aesthetics, their significance to a building’s construction still comes down to their fire-rated performance. Building codes have seen numerous changes over the past decade and experts agree that the industry can expect this to continue.

For example, Razwick notes that one important change in the 2012 International Building Code (IBC) is in Section 703.4, which now clarifies that the fire-resistance rating of glass and other building materials must be established without the use of automatic sprinklers or any other fire suppression system.

“This amendment underscores the importance of fire-rated materials providing unaided fire protection, and helps create an additional margin of safety for building occupants if sprinklers fail or are unable to reach flames during a fire,” Razwick says.

Nass adds, “Regardless of whether the building is full sprinklered or not, fire-protective glazing in exit enclosure doors is limited to 100 square inches. Fire-resistive glazing products may be used to the maximum size tested. Past iterations of the code allowed for protective glass larger than 100 square inches in applications over 45 minutes if the building was fully sprinklered and the glass could limit temperature rise to 450 degrees Fahrenheit over 30 minutes.”

San Diego adds it’s also important for architects and specifiers to know about the updated Chapter 7 tables in the 2012 IBC (see October 2011 USGlass, page 20).

“For the first time, the IBC specifically makes distinctions between fire-protective versus fire-resistive glazing, their allowed applications and, most importantly, their limitations,” she says, explaining that these changes were done to make it easier for designers, code officials and installers to clearly categorize and apply fire-protective and fire-resistive glazing.

She notes, though, that these are not new code requirements, but rather a clarification of the 2006 and 2009 editions of the IBC.

“Even though the new tables will not be adopted locally until jurisdictions accept the 2012 IBC, they are useful today in understanding the 2006 and 2009 IBC glazing requirements. The requirements contained in the new tables have been in effect since the 2006 IBC, and conform to what NFPA 80 provided in the 1999 and 2007 NFPA 80 editions, which are incorporated by reference in the 2012 IBC,” San Diego says.

Ron Leiseca, eastern regional sales manager for Vetrotech Saint-Gobain in Auburn, Wash., comments that the codes are beginning to decrease the role of ceramics due to their limited performance capabilities.

“As their role in rated applications of 60 minutes is phased out by code clarifications-NFPA and ICC have both clarified that ceramics are extremely limited to very small areas in these ratings-architects [will have to] widen their consideration to alternate materials that can offer more capabilities without greatly affecting budgets.”

And when it comes to code changes, Poling adds that almost every state, excluding Illinois, has adopted a 2003 or newer edition of the IBC.

“This eliminates wired glass in areas that require a safety glazing product,” he says. “This is by far the most important change we should all be aware of.”

According to Poling, certain lobby groups are trying to limit the amount of fire-protective glazing products available to the market, for example, by attempting to influence the 2012 IBC to limit the size of glazing in fire-protective doors.

“Fire-protective glazing does not break when exposed to the heat, flames and smoke of fires. Instead, the glazing remains intact and transparent, protecting the occupants and property from the spread of flames, smoke and hot gas, while allowing occupants to clearly identify exit routes,” he says.

Multi-Tasking

As architects continue looking for glass to provide multiple performance abilities, products, too, will continue to evolve to meet these changing needs. “All of these multi-tasking, fire rated glazing products were created to meet the demands of the architectural community,” San Diego says. And that’s a movement the industry can expect to see more of in the years to come.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of Architects’ Guide to Glass & Metal magazine. She can be reached aterogers@glass.comor follow her on Twitter @AGGmagazine and like AGG magazine on Facebook to receive updates.

Source: Architects Guide to Glass & Metal, US Glass Magazine, January 2012

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