Material Liability

Material Liability

posted on 07/11/2014 by Grace Jeffers

At NeoCon earlier this month I saw an increasing trend towards using “greener,” “more natural,” and “less toxic” materials. But did you ever ask yourself “Why do they put all this stuff in materials anyway?” No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I am going to manufacture the most toxic products possible.” And yet there are many materials that the design community is now trying to avoid due to this very issue.

But consider this: materials for interior design are, in general, made to very high standards of performance and to achieve those standards, performance-enhancing substances are added, some of which we are now beginning to identify as problematic.
The high performance materials we strive for don’t always live up to the “green” standards to which we aspire. Can we have both?
How did we get here? It’s a good question and a complicated one to answer but here is a bit of history for your consideration.
On December 31, 1986 the second largest hotel fire in U.S history occurred at the Hotel Dupont Plaza in San Juan, Puerto Rico on New Year's Eve. The fire was set by three arsonists but it has been litigated that because of new furniture and finishes the fire was incredibly fast, hot and destructive and ultimately fatal. Ninety-seven people died and 140 were injured.

Onlookers watch the destruction of the 1986 fire at the Hotel Dupont Plaza.
This fire was a turning point in interior design. A team of lawyers tracked down every material and product supplier to the hotel. Two hundred sixty-four lawsuits were filed resulting in $1.8 billion in damages. From this date forward many manufacturers began adapting their products to meet stricter standards including designing to meet fire rating. These stricter standards required unique and demanding performance material attributes, so new chemistries were developed to meet those new material requirements.

Wilsonart Fire-Rated Laminate is recommended for interior application where fire codes specify or the environment suggests a fire-resistant and smoke-resistant surface.

FireLite Plus fire-rated glass ceramic seen in an Elementary School. FireLite is fire-rated for up to three hours.

Because of this fire, the United States enacted the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990 mandating that smoke detectors and sprinkler systems be installed in hotels.
What other incidents have affected design? Do you have any thoughts on this? Please share if you do!