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The High-rise Fire Curtain

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Conceived and patented1 by the abundantly creative British inventor Arthur Paul Pedrick, the high-rise fire curtain exhibits the same simple, no-nonsense approach to solving day-to-day problems that made the Internally Explosive Nail and the awe-inspiring Radiation Energy Detection Unit almost make sense. Pedrick exhibited a vision that defies simple classification, though many opted for 'mad'.

Big Buildings on Fire

Fires don't confine themselves to small buildings. Massive buildings have as much of a chance of catching fire as smaller ones, and their very size poses problems in handling such situations. While architects and engineers may seek to construct buildings with varied means to handle fire and channel occupants safely to the outside world, many solutions involve noxious gases or the danger of property damage. The ideal method of fire fighting in tall buildings required a combination of a means to put a rapid stop to the flames, while minimising danger to occupants and property alike.

Arthur Pedrick proposed a fire curtain. A big one.

How It Works?

Pedrick's basic concept involves installation of rolled or folded curtains of fire-resistant material (like asbestos) on the roof of a high-rise building. The curtain need not necessarily stretch to the full height of the building, as fire crews could potential handle fires on lower levels with more conventional means. Each curtain, however, stretched to the full width of the face of the building and had a weight of some form secured to the bottom.

On detection of a fire, the curtains would release either through manual trigger - like a fire alarm - or by way of automation - like a smoke detector. Released, the curtain would unfurl and cover the faces of the building, pulled tight to the surface by the weights at the bottom. The curtains would restrict the flow of air into the building, cutting off the fuel for the fire ie, the oxygen in the air inside the building2.

You might wonder about a system intended to cut off the supply of oxygen to a building with many people trapped inside it... Well, Pedrick considered this and made allowance for the people trapped inside. Each building fitted with this system would have designated safety rooms identified through the internal space. Safety rooms sat at various points on the outer edges of the building, with window access to the outside world. The design of the curtains included small apertures aligned to windows within the safety rooms, allowing occupants to get a free flow of air. Presumably, these rooms would also have airtight inner doors that would keep the fires out and the fresh air in.

Voila! The curtains suffocate the fire, while allowing those trapped inside the tower to sit out the danger until rescue. Anyone prepared to drive a bus through the holes in the logic of this invention should sit back, relax and try to enjoy the almost naive simplicity of the concept.

Gherkins Aflame

Alas, the high-rise fire curtain depends heavily on the building conforming to a standard shape, the classic flat-faced rectangular tower block that causes such consternation among modern architectural critics. Modern skylines reveal a multitude of buildings completely devoid of flat surfaces; towering forms covered with pipes, extrusions or just plain curved. While you could adapt the system to work on Tower 42 or the Empire State Building, imagine trying to get the curtains to hang properly on 30 St Mary Axe or the Lloyd's building in London.

Perhaps Pedrick's concept still has a place in the world, as pre-fabricated box buildings still rise up in cities everywhere. Maybe, some futuristic take on the concept could vacuum-form ultra-fine curtains to the surface of the building with some application of static electricity or involve some short-lived fire-resistant biodegradable foam that coats the outer walls...

Whatever the future might hold for Pedrick's inventions, you cannot argue with awarding him an 'A' for effort!

1Patent Number GB1453920, published in July 1977, filed in May 1975.2This notion varies from the safety curtain common in theatres, consisting of fire-retardant materials and sheet metal, designed to confine fire and smoke within the back stage area away from the massed crowds in the auditorium. Almost certain fatality if struck by the falling curtain would be the only commonality of the two systems!

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