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March 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

According to Dr. Guylène Proulx of the NRC Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC), the notion of office workers panicking while evacuating burning buildings is a "myth". In reality, "people cope the best they can with the information they have and make the best of the situation." Dr. Proulx made the comments during the first of four seminars in the new NRC Mind in Matter lecture series.

A NRC researcher interviews a shopper about fire alarm recognition.
A NRC researcher interviews a shopper about fire alarm recognition.

Proulx, part of NRC-IRC's fire research team, was one of three researchers from the institute to present findings at the seminar. She noted that, following a number of high-profile events such as the destruction of the World Trade Centre complex and a deadly office tower fire in Chicago, there has been more and more demands for information about crowd behaviour and reactions during emergencies such as fires.

Worth noting, authorities are reacting and have implemented changes recommended by Proulx and others in the field. As an example, in the coming months, New York City will change building codes to require the use of photoluminescent paint in all high-rise stairwells. Use of such paint is critical in helping assist evacuation during a fire or power outage because the stairs and the exit path will remain visible.

Other presenters at the seminar echoed the importance of using research to influence policy. Dr. Jennifer Veitch, part of the indoor environment group at NRC-IRC stressed that a key part of the team's research strategy involves being active in standards bodies. Using this approach, promising research findings have a better chance of getting adopted as part of future code changes. Veitch's research is driven by growing information surrounding the physical and psychological effects of light, information which has a major impact on lighting design for office interiors. "Healthy light is not just about illuminating horizontal surfaces, it's about getting the optimal amount and type of light into the eye," she noted. For example, light in the blue and green frequencies are most effective in regulating a hormone known as melatonin which plays a major role in regulating our bodies' natural day-night patterns (circadian rhythm).

Allowing employees to personalise their workspace can be beneficial to their satisfaction and well-being.
Allowing employees to personalise their workspace can be beneficial to their satisfaction and well-being.

Dr. Kate Charles, also part of the NRC-IRC indoor environment group, shared highlights from a recent study about open-office environments; 61% of all offices are open plan. Charles pointed to a number of design changes that can have an impact on occupant satisfaction and productivity, such as designing office partitions that are the right height to provide privacy, or considering the use of transparent panels to allow light to penetrate the core of office interiors. The study also resulted in two unique software tools for designers that assess the impact of different building materials and design choices on the overall office environment.

According to NRC-IRC acting Director General Bob Bowen, who helped introduce the seminar, not so many years ago, it would have been impossible to launch a study of open-office environments, let alone the other kinds of research presented at the seminar. Previously, office occupants were not consulted about their attitudes and behaviour because it was thought that this would provide useless information. "But, know we know that people are a critical piece of the puzzle," he said. All of the NRC-IRC research presented at the seminar has been focused in addressing this deficit. Collectively, these researchers are assembling important information about how humans behave in and interact with their built environment, information that is ultimately helping address issues of health, safety and productivity.


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