Better Living Challenge


Early detection saves lives

May 22, 2014

All too often we read the terrible story the morning after the night before: yet another fire has swept through an informal settlement, destroying property and lives; leaving nothing but heartache and desperation in its wake. During 2013, 128 people lost their lives and thousands were left homeless as a result of fires that ripped through Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and other informal settlements in the Western Cape.

It’s tragically unsurprising that shack fires spread so quickly. Informal dwellings are built very close together, with highly flammable materials. Inadequate electricity supply means that occupants cook and keep warm using open fires, or paraffin stoves that can ignite instantly when they’re knocked over. Human error and malicious intent also contribute to the causes of fires.

As designers, we’re hard-wired to look for different, better, new ways to solve old problems. Two examples show how design thinking can be used to prevent shack fires from starting, and if they do start, from spreading.

Early detection saves lives

While smoke detectors are used around the world, the prevalence of smoke from everyday activities in informal settlements means a new approach was required to smoke and fire detection. Rather than detecting smoke, the Khusela fire detector senses rapid increases in temperature that would signal the presence of fire. Because shack fires typically start in the early hours of the morning, Khusela emits a low frequency signal that research found to be the optimum frequency for waking people.

Houses in informal settlements are very close together, more connected than those in other areas. While this density does present its own challenges in other ways, their immediate proximity helps to activate emergency networks more quickly. In particular, the Khusela signal is loud enough to wake up neighbours up to 100 metres away, helping to prevent the fire from burning out of control.

Khusela was designed as part of a thesis by UCT student Francois Patousis, advised by Samuel Ginsberg. The device recently won the People’s Choice award in the Global Social Venture Competition, in recognition of their design for a low-cost fire detection device. Built with a three-year battery lifespan, it is intended that the devices will be able to be sold for under R100.


The Khusela fire detector is activated when sensors detect a rapid increase in temperature, helping shack occupants to find the fire early. See for more detail. 


Design dairy

Dairy products aren’t an obvious choice for preventing fires from spreading. But a group of researchers at the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy have seen the potential offered by whey, a by-product of cheese. Whey contains casein, which contains phosphate groups that have very effective fire retardant properties, burning for only a relatively short time before charring and self-extinguishing.

The researchers tested the theory by burning three different fabrics that had been coated in a mix of water and casein. In the tests, cotton consumed only 14% of the fabric and only 23% of polyester fabric burned before the fire died out. A cotton-polyester mix burned the fabric completely, but much more slowly, taking 60% longer to burn the treated fabric.

While research is still underway to refine the practical applications of the theory, tests have shown just how much possibility lies in the idea that a dairy by-product could be instrumental in reducing the speed with which fires can spread in high density urban settlements.


Fabric Flame Tests 

Flame-resistance fabrics. From left to right: casein-treated cotton, casein-treated polyester, casein-treated cotton-polyester blend. Federico Carosio , Alessandro Di Blasio , Fabio Cuttica , Jenny Alongi , and Giulio Malucelli (for more see

With winter coming, what’s your idea to prevent fires and in turn save lives? Tell us at the Better Living Challenge by 31 May. You could see your product on shelves sooner than you think. Visit for more detail.