Atrium Smoke Control 101

Atriums have been a common design in architecture since ancient Rome. While once constructed purely for the function of bringing in natural light and ventilation, atriums are now often pursued for aesthetics as they bring an outdoor environment simulation indoors. Commercial building designers often include atriums within lobbies and while there is little doubt that they are visually beautiful, they can present unique challenges when it comes to fire control.


The overall openness of atriums is also its biggest flaw. Fire control can be difficult in these areas, but more specifically in older buildings where smoke and fire control weren't considered during construction. When a fire is present in a lower level of the building the atrium can cause a chimney effect to occur, pulling smoke to upper levels and exacerbating fires rapidly.

While the uninformed may believe the fire itself to be the biggest danger, it is actually smoke inhalation that is the most fatal aspect of a fire. Smoke inhalation, even when not fatal, can cause permanent, irreparable damage to the human body. Smoke can spread surprisingly fast and even quite a small fire can create a significant amount of smoke very quickly. Therefore, for the sake of human safety, smoke control must be a top concern. Not to mention, smoke control also means firefighters can more easily extinguish the fire, which makes smoke control systems highly valuable. The faster the fire is put out, the less damage is done to the building itself.

One of the most effective means of smoke control within an atrium is the use of smoke or fire curtains. Smoke curtains are an effective yet simple means of managing smoke in the event of a fire. Compared to other smoke control tactics involving invasive remodels, smoke curtains can quite often be installed in any building regardless of age. These curtains vary in size, from small curtains designed to cover dumbwaiters to the expansive perimeter curtains, which are ideal for atrium smoke control.


Perimeter smoke control curtains are expansive in size and deploy vertically, effectively causing a barrier that smoke cannot pass through. These perimeter curtains may be placed on all floors of a building where there is access to the atrium, which also includes the ground floor. Additional horizontal fire curtains may also be placed strategically between floors to better trap smoke in one part of the building. This is highly recommended for high-rise buildings, but are still a huge benefit for buildings that may only have 3 or 4 floors.

An excellent example of a working perimeter smoke control system is Smoke Guard's M4000 curtain currently in place in the Facebook office in California. The M4000 model was selected for this purpose as it deploys a vertical curtain capable of covering quite a large perimeter, without requiring any corner posts for installation. The atrium of the Facebook office, as well as the general open floor plan, can make smoke control seemingly impossible without an effective smoke control curtain system.

As you can see in this video, the M4000 curtain is essentially invisible, being retracted up into the ceiling itself complete with matching trim for a seamless look. When deployed the curtain begins to drop, unfolding in an accordion fashion. Once completely deployed smoke from the atrium is effectively blocked from spreading into this upper floor. The M400 is an excellent choice for perimeter smoke control in these large, open buildings with spacious atriums as it may be set up in old buildings without the need for any type of remodeling or reconstruction. This particular model has a cornerless design, thus making it ideal for new and historic buildings alike.

If the building in question does have egresses, the contractor may easily add additional fire curtains to compensate. The M4000 doesn't include egress compatibility, but Smoke Guard's range of different smoke curtains can be used in conjunction.


While not always required, the accompanying use of mechanical air control systems to manage smoke can be used along with smoke curtains. Exhaust fans can help control smoke within the atrium itself to allow for easier fire extinguishing by firefighters, even though the smoke curtains will offer smoke inhalation protection to people within the building.


Remember, smoke control is one of the most important aspects of fire safety. Atriums and open floor plans have many benefits architecturally but often are a concern when it comes to meeting fire safety codes. Thankfully the use of smoke curtains makes updating buildings easy and fast. Smoke curtains should be installed during the construction process of any new buildings, but older buildings can easily be remolded. Investing in smoke curtains is relatively inexpensive compared to using only mechanical exhaust systems and offers peace of mind to the building owner. When it comes to value, smoke curtains are the most effective means of smoke control within a building with an atrium.