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A NEW APPROACH TO THE CHILDREN'S WORK FURNITURE DESIGN IN LINE WITH THE LATEST ERGONOMIC REQUIREMENTS

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Correctly designed children's workspace both in school and home is one of the key factors in regular growth and development of all important abilities of youths. To date research results show that current approaches to designing pupil's work place as well as the concepts of the offered solutions do not fully support up-to-date needs of contemporary academic generations. Growth curve of the young is not accompanied by functional ergonomic parameters of the furniture. Mismatch between functional dimensions of desks and chairs and anthropometrical dimensions of its user supports the assumed relation with unhealthy body posture during writing, reading and listening, and of the restless and uncomfortable sitting, body tiring and subsequent pains in the body. Contemporary schools advocate quite a different approach to work and suggest changes in design and construction of the existing children's work furniture that encourages sitting dynamics. The article presents new criteria and requirements for healthy and safe sitting and individual use of ergonomically designed school and home tables and chairs.
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Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
A NEW APPROACH TO THE CHILDREN'S WORK
FURNITURE DESIGN IN LINE WITH THE LATEST
ERGONOMIC REQUIREMENTS
Danijela Domljan1, Ivica Grbac2, Andrija Bogner3
1University of Zagreb, Faculty of Forestry, Zagreb, Croatia, domljan@sumfak.hr
2University of Zagreb, Faculty of Forestry, Zagreb, Croatia, ivica.grbac@zg.htnet.hr
3University of Zagreb, Faculty of Forestry, Zagreb, Croatia, bogner@sumfak.hr
Summary: Correctly designed children's workspace both in school and home is one of the key factors in
regular growth and development of all important abilities of youths. To date research results show that
current approaches to designing pupil's work place as well as the concepts of the offered solutions do not
fully support up-to-date needs of contemporary academic generations. Growth curve of the young is not
accompanied by functional ergonomic parameters of the furniture. Mismatch between functional
dimensions of desks and chairs and anthropometrical dimensions of its user supports the assumed relation
with unhealthy body posture during writing, reading and listening, and of the restless and uncomfortable
sitting, body tiring and subsequent pains in the body. Contemporary schools advocate quite a different
approach to work and suggest changes in design and construction of the existing children’s work furniture
that encourages sitting dynamics. The article presents new criteria and requirements for healthy and safe
sitting and individual use of ergonomically designed school and home tables and chairs.
Keywords: children’s workspace, furniture, working chair and table, design, ergonomics standards
1. INTRODUCTION
Among all of life periods of any person dramatic changes in physical and mental functions and
the most obvious growth and overall physical, psychomotor, intellectual, cognitive, emotional
and social development is experienced during the pre-school and school life time. First days at
school present a turning point in the life of every child. It is the end of regular alteration of their
game and rest periods, the time when the organized work comes first, carried out for the most
part in the classroom accompanied by restriction of free movement. School children are
nowadays a special risk-group, expected to be efficiently present for 6 to 8 (or even more) hours
a day in the school environment, mostly sitting in some manner. Classroom activities (reading,
writing, listening and watching the teacher, both with using papers or computers) or homework
activities (which are very common), require mostly static trunk posture in a chair and a
matching table.
Figure 1: An example of body fatigue in a sitting position caused by inadequately designed
school furniture. The result is incorrect posture.
Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
Prolonged sitting is a great strain for a young body that readily causes physical fatigue (Figure
1). Non-ergonomically dimensioned furniture, unsuited to body proportions, can only intensify
fatigue, ending up in bad posture, generating muscular pain in the back, neck and head,
agitation, loss of concentration and restlessness in the attempt to find better position.
Unfortunately, there isn't any prolonged position of a human body which will be comfortable
and painless after a period of time. Also, there isn’t any perfectly designed working chair or
table in which, after some time, comes body fatigue (23). The problem of prolonged sitting is
tried to be resolved by contemporary conceptual approach to design of children’s work furniture
that encourages sitting dynamics and individual adjustment of users.
2. CURRENT RESEARCHES
2.1. Incorrect sitting posture
Results of surveys conducted in Croatia some 20 years ago (23) show that approximately 30%
of schoolchildren attending primary schools and as many as 45% of secondary schoolchildren
exhibited first signs of bad sitting posture.
A few years ago the BBC program confirmed the alarming data (1), showing that due to the
unhealthy sitting posture about 25% of the UK students complain of the back and neck pain,
headache and loss of concentration and that as much as 75% of the US schoolchildren manifest
musculoskeletal discomfort and lower back pain (MSD/LBP).
A small body of research (9,13,19,20) has implicated the mismatch between school furniture
and anthropometric dimensions of schoolchildren as a causative factor for MSD/LBP amongst
youths. Growth curve of the young is not accompanied by functional ergonomic parameters of
the furniture. Incorrect fit of furniture dimensions with its user supports the assumed relation
with unhealthy body posture during writing, reading and listening, and of the restless and
uncomfortable sitting, body tiring and subsequent pains in the body. According to a survey in
UK, University of Surrey (15) the students spend on average about 38% of their time at desk, of
which 27.91% in trunk flexed postures and as much as 33.50% in neck flexion. This study has
implications for both the length and structure of lessons, also the design of school furniture on
MSD/LBP at children. Furniture that is not suited to anthropometric measurements of a child,
hours of intense sitting at computers, generally poor knowledge about proper sitting posture and
scarce exercise are the main cause of the growing MSD/LBP symptoms in the young (6).
A comprehensive study in UK (7), aimed to compare the effects of the traditional non-
adjustable and new adjustable school tables and chairs on the sitting and standing postures, also
muscle tension and pain levels as well as the learning success, demonstrates that in using
adjustable tables and chairs the muscle tension levels of students fell significantly in lumbar and
trapezius muscles, the headache and low back pain correlated with the neck-shoulder pain as
well as trapezius muscle tension. Also the standing stature was corrected (kyphosis, scoliosis
and lordosis). This results support the necessity of ergonomic approach in furniture planning of
school classes and individual adjustment possibility of tables and chairs.
According to results of a survey (12) of the effects of implementing ergonomically designed
school furniture on measures of comfort, sitting posture and symptoms shows that "sitting
behaviour" is also very big problem in design school furniture. Although pupils had ergonomic
furniture, they didn't automatically sit properly, mostly because they didn't know how to sit.
These results demonstrate the need for proper instructions and adjustment, but also the
education on sitting behaviour. It is suggests that furniture design is one aspect of a
multidimensional problem.
Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
2.2. Traditional approach to designing the school work place
Some researches (1) confirms poor condition of many schools all over the world as regards their
equipment and furniture. As many as 86% of school desks and chairs are unfit for use (old and
worn out, unsafe, even dangerous and designed non-ergonomically). Irrespective of scientific
research and recommendations to have working desks and chairs designed ergonomically and
made adjustable to their individual users, majority of countries have not abandoned their mass
production of furniture. In Croatia, for example, school management and teaching staff as well
as the Ministry of science, education and sport support the need for annual procurement of new
furniture (32). However, mostly for financial reasons, the schools do not tender for more than
two size marks. This enables partial accommodation to the average popliteal range of young
and reduces the chances to meet the needs of individual users. There are no written instructions
regarding the necessary design characteristics and compulsory production of the equipment
according to standards in seven size marks and colour codes (26). Instructions of the state
agencies relating to school equipment are concerned more with an overall number of chairs and
desks that a classroom can hold than with the accurate functional dimensions of furniture and
pupils' needs (30). As ergonomic design or the importance of its application is nowhere pointed
out, the current one continues to be used. Above all, furniture production in many countries
complies with the old ISO standards, although the comparative studies (9) show that they are
not appropriate and do not assure correct sitting posture.
Since the mass production of school furniture is uniformed (30), the design or construction are
typical (8). Most frequently seen in schools are desks and chairs with strong metal base
construction, ski-shaped or with four legs; chairs with moulded plastic or pressed bent wood
material of the backrest and with nonadjustable seat tilt and height; double desks with fix
horizontal laminated-sharp-edged table tops and with the book compartment and the side hook.
Traditional opinions insist that school tables need book compartment and the side hook,
although the shelf below not allowing desk-knee clearance to higher pupils, and today
backpacks are too heavy for the side hook. Design is still unchangeable.
The problem about availability of appropriate home workspace for some children is most
frequently in financial status of their parents who cannot afford to their kids ergonomically
designed workspace and proper work conditions. Consequently, it is usually a kitchen- or a
dining room table that is used for writing homeworks.
2.3. Contemporary education
Owing to its scientific and technological orientation, contemporary school has different
qualitative features from the traditional one. Pedagogic research (22) shows that a dynamic,
flexible and creative school encourages personality, uniqueness, innovativeness, intercultural
characteristics and quality, while some of its activities are developed in a family setting. In line
with the latest pedagogic principles, the accompanying design and furnishing solutions for the
school workspace are being changed permanently (2). The innovative post-industrial society
having created a new teaching system that implies dedicated areas (11) requires a new approach
to designing contemporary schools. Classrooms are becoming the venues of interactive
teaching, learning and acting. Relevant to new working modes, the appropriately designed
children’s multifunctional workspace should enable correct sitting posture during reading,
writing, listening to a teacher or working on the computer, irrespective of whether they take
place at home or at school.
Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
2.4. Contemporary design and production
The most recent research data show that furniture designed for the individual user is much more
acceptable than the mass produced furniture of standardized indiscriminate shapes and sizes
(7,12). In addition, medical research carried out in Europe confirms the advantages of high
sitting and of the wheeled and adjustable chairs and desks. Sitting culture studies in the USA
schools have shown that along with the marked preference for the fixed and movable furniture,
as many as 10% of the students prefer seminar chairs with the adjustable desktop. In line with
these findings the Rules have been designed setting the obligation upon the schools, tendering
for the equipment, to collect the bids for the chairs with the adjustable top. Ten per cent of them
accommodate left-handed students. The furniture suited to individual users is already available
in Finland (Figure 2), Sweden and Denmark. This trend expands to other European countries,
Germany, France and Switzerland.
Standards and guidelines for educational institutions and standard production programmes
prepared by modern manufacturers now include high sitting options, chairs with adjustable
footrest and forward-angled seat pan, and desks with adjustable desktops (30). This enables
individual accommodation of the seat height in reading and writing positions, which is
important for the back and blood supply of legs. While listening and watching the teacher the
pupils sit leaning on a chair back and resting their feet on the footrest adjustable to the length of
the lower leg and attached to the lower part of the desk or to the chair. Such furniture allows
distribution of body weight during writing or reading to the front end of the seat, a semi
standing-semi sitting position, with the legs either on the footrest or on the floor.
Figure 2: The Scandinavians are leaders in the ergonomic school- and office furniture research
and production. School furniture made by ISKU, Finland (Learning Environment 1998-99)
3. BASIC PRINCIPLES IN DESIGNING ERGONOMICAL WORKSPACE
The working place, especially school table, has for a long time been considered the main culprit
for an adverse school impact on a child’s health and productivity (3). Nowadays the working
tables and matching chairs have to find their place also in children's homes. In order to accent
the importance of healthy and proper sitting position and diminish the risk of possible diseases
or children body deformation, science applies the most recent insights gained in orthopaedics
and ergonomics as well as anthropological measurements of children, and gives
recommendations for ergonomic design and construction, published in special guidelines.
3.1. Anthropometric data
Anthropometric values of the pupils are an important factor for determination of their individual
differences, characteristics of individual groups and their level of development. They are the
precondition for setting up functional measures for the design of school furniture. Static and
dynamic anthropometric characteristics of the pupils’ average size at given age at sitting can be
used to determine optimal size of the school desk and chair as well as other dimension
Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
parameters of the environment that interacts with the pupils’ size (14,18). From biostatical
view, dispersion curves of individual anthropometric variables of children’s body show marked
dispersion in one population (16, 24) manifested not only in different body height of the boys
and girls, but also in one generation, school, region or state irrespective of the same age or sex.
This clearly shows the complexity of adjustment to physical characteristics of a few pupils in
the same class and satisfaction of almost all or of the majority of set biomedical requirements
aimed at ensuring pupils’ health. These facts very much complicate furnishing of the
classrooms with appropriately sized furniture, particularly in the view of the fact that more
generations use one classroom during one school day. Anthropometric studies carried out over
the past 50 years worldwide (17) with Croatia inclusive 30 years ago (23), in 1995 (6) and the
most recent ones (25), confirm the increasing acceleration of children’s growth. It has been
established that the youths’ average height at the age from 7 to 10 years has increased by 5-7
cm on average and at the age from 11 to 14 years by as much as 7-10 cm.
This results of growing and new anthropometrical dimensions of pupils confirm the necessity of
a new approach in design-construction and optimization of the existing children’s work
furniture.
3.2. Standards for educational furniture
Ergonomics, handbook and standards are aimed at harmonizing anthropometric measurements
of young with dimensions of the work furniture for educational institutions or homes. European
standard ENV 1729, is currently the best providers for designing educational furniture, specially
tables and chairs. Standard ENV 1729-1 (Part 1) deals with functional dimensions (27) and
ENV 1729-2 (Part two) with setting safety requirements and their test methods (28). European
countries apply it in parallel with their national standards. It reflects the experience gained on
the basis of the old national regulations of the European countries (33), results of the latest
worldwide research on healthy sitting and recent anthropometric measurements of youth in the
European countries. It is aimed at designing school desks and chairs that will ensure and
encourage good posture.
Figure 3: ENV 1729:1 recommendations regarding design of school desks and chairs. Key to
dimension of double-sloped seats and associated table.
Due to a significant increase of body measurements of students, the standard has been amended
i.e. some new provisions and recommendations related to specific ergonomic principles have
been added or deleted (introduction of size mark 7 - height of desktop and chair seat of 830 mm
and 510 mm respectively, and deletion of size mark 0). Findings about healthy and ergonomic
sitting posture have led to the changes in inclination of backrest. Chair design allows forward
inclination of the seat (the so called single sloped seat with a positive seat angle) for the proper
writing posture. There is also a double-sloped seat and the adjustable footrest on the desk or the
chair if the feet do not rest comfortably on the floor (high sitting) (Figure 3). High sitting
Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
enables healthy posture to both the pupils and teachers as it avoids leaning over. The standards
give recommendations as to calculating matching heights of a desk and a chair. Details about
dimensions inclinations, marking and other recommendations regarding design as well as safety
standards and test methods are contained therein.
4. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHILDREN'S WORK FURNITURE DESIGN
According to the aforementioned researches, principles and standards, recommendations
regarding chair and table design should be specifically noted.
First, their dimensions must be adjusted to the pupils' dimensions. The height of chairs and
tables increases with the height of the child.
4.1. Working chair
The optimal work chair should, despite all different seating planes, allow free body movement
in a sitting position which is achieved by adjusting the seating to the height and the backrest
inclination; achievable via an adjustable mechanism (a hand operated lever or knob, or
pneumatic adjustment mechanism as alternative solutions; or a taut nut with a key for fixed
adjustment). As such solutions are rather expensive most schools select chairs with fixed
mechanisms. In such cases the height of the seat is achieved by different size marks, as is the
distance between the seat and backrest.
The requirements regarding the seat, backrest and the chair frame are as follows:
The seat plane is horizontal. An inclination forward or backward at an angle of +/- 3-5º is
recommended. Its surface shall not be slippery.
The seat edges shall be well rounded. The front seat edge shall have a higher radius of
roundness and shall not exert pressure on the popliteal area. There shall be no pressure at the
front of the seat between the seating surface and the thighs.
The seat depth shall be determined by allowing sufficient clearance between the popliteal
area and the front edge of seating plane, about 5-10 cm.
The shape of the backrest shall follow the shape of the body and shall be of a slightly
concave roundness.
The backrest shall not be vertical but inclined backwards at an angle of 95-110º, also shall
support the back in the lumbar region and below the shoulder blades in a firm manner
The lower edge of the backrest shall be rounded outwards with an inclination referent point
determined according to the seat height.
The chair under-frame shall allow for clearance for feet and be of the required stability and
strength. Adequate clearance between lumbar support and seat shall be provided so as to
ensure free movement of the buttocks.
Risk of injury to the user shall be avoided: joining elements, (e.g. screws) shall not protrude
from the frame; metal frames shall be made from rounded (round or oval) profiles; rounded
shapes are recommended
4.2. Working table
The optimal table should allow for graded height adjustment (rotating lever, taut nut) and work
surface inclination of 0-20º, and be used as a table with a horizontal work surface, with an
inclined work surface or for standing up at table. The table for one student is recommended. For
reasons of economy tables used are for the most part with nonadjustable frame, while the work
surface is designed for two students (making adjusting more difficult).
Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
The table height is determined according to the chair height (vertical distance), allowing for the
lower arm to rest lightly on the work surface without bending the shoulders forward. Every
table shall fit the chair with the same mark.
The requirements regarding the work surface and the table frame are as follows:
The work surface plane shall be minimum 60 x 50 cm for one student. The plane for two
students shall be minimum 120 x 50 cm (for size mark 6 and 7 it is 130 x 50 cm)
The work surface plane may have an adjustable inclination of 0 to 20º slope or may be
horizontally fixed.
The height of the table shall be selected so that the elbows are at approximately the same
level as the front edge of the table top when the upper arm is suspended vertically. There
shall be clearance between the back of the legs and the front edge of the seat.
The work surface plane shall not be slippery or reflective; it shall be adequately solid and
resistant. The contrast with the paper or book lying on it must be negligible.
The outer edges of the work surface plane must be slightly rounded and free from burrs.
The foot zone shall be clear and not limited by any shelves for books, frame supports or
other. If the book compartment is necessary, there shall be enough clearance between thigh
and underside of table to allow the freedom of movement.
The area for storing the school bag and other school equipment shall be to the side or in
front of the knees and easily accessible. Good solutions are collapsible tables or tables with
a box for storing things. A shelf below the table is not very practical; it hinders knee space
so it is better not to use it. Shelves and cupboards at the sides should be used for storing
school equipment.
4.3. Healthy accessories and equipment
In the absence of the radically designed furniture enabling proper seating, also in the absence of
financial resources for such a supply, the teachers and students can use variously shaped
surfaces that allow sitting dynamics. It is recommended to use various accessories, reasonably
priced and easy to assemble, so as to make up for the imperfections of the available furniture.
For example, equipping a flat chair with a firm cushion for forward tilt, or with a rolled-up pad
or small cushion for lumbar support, at 95 - 110º; the use of a footrest or a book placed under
the feet to reduce the pressure on the nerves and muscles of the lower leg and feet; insertion of
the blocks under desk legs to make adequate knee clearance (prevented mostly by the bottom of
the book compartment) that should not be less than 1.5 cm or, if possible, removal of a book
compartment; horizontal desktop during reading can be equipped with an adjustable desk
allowing 0 20º tilt or with the fixed desk slanted at the angle of 16º.
Figure 4: Body position during reading, listening and writing that relieves spinal- and body
muscles strain; SVSS, Swiss Back Care Association
Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
Physicians recommend (2) sitting on a ball, small tables or kneeling desks as dynamic (labile)
sitting surfaces that support the spine and back muscles in the active position (Figure 4). Mats
and gym apparatus may be the alternative to relieve spinal strain.
CONCLUSIONS
Contemporary humans spend one third of their lifetime in sitting, of which almost 10,000 hours
in the classrooms. The purpose of modern, ergonomically designed school furniture is to
provide proper and comfortable seating at the matching table, under various conditions
determined by contemporary curricula, during writing, reading, listening and watching the
teacher, modelling or drawing, in a team- or individual work, during use of a computer or any
other similar activity. In addition to meeting basic requirements (mobility, portability,
maintainability, functional adjustability, etc. with satisfactory durability, strength and safety)
contemporary furniture has to comply with fundamental ergonomic and anthropometric
principles.
The issue regarding equipping of schools or homes with ergonomically designed desks and
chairs is very complex. Ergonomic and fully adjustable furniture is available on many world
markets, but many schools or parents cannot afford it because of its significantly higher price.
The growing price of higher-quality furniture is also due to bigger funds required for systemic
and comprehensive research on anthropometric measurements of schoolchildren either in
specific schools or in the whole country, aimed at defining educational furniture design
guidelines and standards. Yet, as long as economy, rather than ergonomics, is the priority there
will be a mismatch between the dimensions of school furniture and pupils, and the arising
consequences of unhealthy posture.
Unfortunately, the studies evidencing the extent of mismatch between dimensions of the
available furniture and body size of schoolchildren are scarce. Hence, interdisciplinary studies
aimed at determining comprehensive sitting parameters to obtain an optimal construction and
design of furniture, fully compliant with the users' technical, ergonomics, anthropometric and
functional requirements started two years ago at the Faculty of Forestry, University of Zagreb
as a major contribution to resolving this global issue. An ultimate goal is to collect
supplementary data and create verified basis for design, engineering and production of safe,
healthy and comfortable furniture which would be the basis for approximation of the Croatian
to the European and global industry.
The authors of this work recommend to all designers, engineers and producers of children's
working furniture to follow mentioned guidelines and principles. Also, the other participants
(such as parents, school stuff, government, etc.), are invited in designing a healthy workspace
for the youths. The parents have to be attentive to their children's complaints of physical
discomforts (e.g. pain or discomfort while sitting, etc.) and psychological effects of
uncomfortable furniture. They should also ensure ergonomically designed homework space and
home computer workstations. School staff should encourage school communities, boards and
other academic bodies to the Ministry of Education and Healthcare to design and implement
Public Procurement Act for the procurement of ergonomic school furniture, and they should
increase their awareness of the influence of uncomfortable and non-ergonomic furniture on
learning abilities, concentration, pain and physical deformities. The teachers should be updated
in the most recent research about anatomy and proper body mechanics as well as in healthy
posture so as to instruct their students accordingly. This can be done by verbal instructions,
visuals and repetitive practice tasks. The solution might be in the production of at least two size
marks of the adjustable desks to cover three size marks and the matching non-adjustable chairs
with the adjustable footrest and the place to fix the rotating writing tablet. If the budget does not
allow this either, it must be sufficient to cover procurement of ergonomic accessories for this
furniture.
Proceedings of 2nd International Ergonomics Conference, Ergonomics 2004
Oct.21st-22th,2004, Stubičke Toplice, Zagreb, Croatia
The research in furniture influence on youths' posture has shown that irrespective of its design,
both the awareness of healthy sitting and the practices employed meanwhile are of equal
importance and value. The point is in maintaining the body dynamics over prolonged sitting. A
child must be given a wider choice of body positions. Ergonomically designed furniture that
matches body proportions and size is of great help in achieving this goal. Teaching about
correct sitting must start already during schooling, so that future sitting issues in the office chair
are minimized.
If our goal is to develop a psychophysically healthy individual capable of work, our concern
must be also the working furniture that humans use from their early days of life, It means a new
concepts in design and construction of school and home workspace.
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Karač, I.: Organizing teaching according to the system of specialised rooms, Proceedings of Fourth Croatian Pedagogic Conference on Education and Pedagogy in the Development of Croatian Society, Vrgoč, H. (Ed.), pp 345-347, ISBN 953-6134-47-0, Pula, 2003, Croatian Pedagogic Society, Zagreb, (2003)
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Panero, J., Zelnik, M.: Antropološke mere i enterijer, Zbirka preporuka za standarde u projektovanju, IRO Građevinska knjiga, ISBN 86-395-0016-9, Beograd, (1987)