PUBLIC SAFETY IN PUBLIC BUILDINGS.
The publishers of The Sanitary Engineer—a journal whose mission is shown, by the signification of its title, to be found in the furtherment of the public welfare, correcting violations and abuses of organic and physical laws, and instructing and educating the people upon the subject of hygiene and other branches of science tending to the betterment of the public health and the promotion of life—have offered four premiums, aggregating the sum of five hundred dollars, for designs for a model city school-house. The building is to occupy a plot of ground one hundred feet square, open to the North, but enclosed upon the remaining sides. Accommodations for eight hundred pupils are called for, and separate entrances and class-rooms for girls and boys, of whom there shall be an equal number, must be provided. In construction the building s all be of brick, with timber floors and fireproof staircases. It is to contain teacher ’ rooms, retiring rooms, closets, classrooms sufficient for all the scholars, the rooms holding fifty-four each, and an exhibition hall large enough to seat all the pupils besides teachers and visitors at one time. The points upon which the awards will be based are as follows, given presumably in the order of their consideration : 1. Convenience of arrangement; 2. Security from fire and means of egress ; 3. Distribution of light ; 4. Ventilation and heating ; 5. Drainage and other sanitary appointments. The designs are to be sent to the donors of the premiums before the second day of February next, when they will be considered by a committee composed of five eminent architects, engineers, and other professional men whose talents and training qualify them for the task presented.
It will be seen that especial emphasis has been given to the question of security from fire and immunity from danger consequent upon panics of any sort. In this the projectors of the enterprise have shown great wisdom. It is too often the case in buildings of this kind that the factor which should secure the most attention, the care and protection of life and limb in the event of fire or similar disaster, is entirely ignored or at least made subservient to architectural effect, ventilation, etc. To give the building what is considered a fine appearance, and make it a monument of the enterprise and culture of the city or town, the structure is generally crowned with a fire-trap in the shape of a mansard roof, and other gimcracks which take fire upon the slightest provocation and burn until the flames exhaust themselves for want of material to feed upon. Then, again, to assist in the work of destruction in case of fire, air ducts, flues and ventilators of every description are placed in the building, starting with the ground floor and extending to the roof. A fire breaks out in the cellar, and in a moment is carried to the garret. How often one reads accounts of destructive fires arising in this manner! The writer of these lines was himself present at a fire of this very kind not many months ago, and witnessed the destruction of a public school building which entailed a loss to the taxpayers of the city of fifty thousand dollars. The fire was discovered on a lower floor while in its incipiency, and the Firemen, who were promptly at hand, poured their streams upon the apparent seat of difficulty, and, as they supposed, extinguished the fire. But they reckoned without their host, for while engaged in picking up their hose, word was brought by an adventurous officer who had groped his way up the smoking and winding stairs to the attic, that the space between the upper ceiling and roof was engulfed by the flames. The Firemen were obliged to retire to the outside of the building, and as their engines were incapable of throwing water to the roof they could do but little more than watch the great waste of property going on before their eyes.
To return to the consideration of the designs solicited by the Engineer. It is a question whether a mistake has not been made in overestimating the number of scholars that should be accommodated in the limited area of ground given. Unless the ground which should be used as a play ground is not severely encroached upon, the building must be at least four stories high. Naturally the class-rooms will be placed on the lower floors and the large hall above; but in this there is a palpable mistake. Who would think of going up three flights of stairs to reach the ground floor of a theatre or church ? And, again, what is the absolute necessity of having an exhibition hall in a school building ? It is used but three or four times a year, and in some instances it is not used at all, except at very long intervals, by some entertainment foreign to the real provinces of school work. Better would it be to expend the money which must be consumed in a large hall, in other ways. Why is it that in the smaller cities of the country, where land is cheap, school buildings running away up to the skies, are erected ? It is a mistaken idea that a building, to possess architectural beauty, must be carried into the air as many stories as possible. School-houses, but a single story in height, are demanded in the interest of the health and life of the children of our country ; certainly not more than two stories, and ample exits should be provided. Numerous have been the scenes of panic, threatening frightful results, that have occurred in school buildings. The lesson to be learned from this experience, is that means of safety to life should receive the highest consideration in the erection of public buildings. Supervision by competent officers should be so severe, made so by stringent laws, that it would be impossible for theatre managers, church committeemen, and other persons having in charge the construction of edifices intended for public resort, to erect their buildings unless the plans thereof conformed to the principles demanded to secure human safety. The Legislatures of the various States should let petty squabbles go by the board, and give their attention to measures conducive to general improvement.