Heritage buildings – should they be preserved and risk irreparable damage, or adopt modern fire prevention methods?

27 June 2019

The Fire Protection Association recently carried out a survey, asking “Is it more important to keep the authentic look of a heritage building, or protect it from fire by implementing contemporary protection measures, with modern construction materials or installing new replacement fire doors?” As the Notre Dame fire had just happened, we received over 100 responses.

It would be nice to think that there would be a simple answer to the question but as the responses highlight – there is no such thing. Respondents put forward opinions at extreme ends of the spectrum with one suggesting that improved protection utilising modern methods and materials as opposed to losing the building to fire is a “no-brainer” and another “Better a bit of alteration to view rather than a lot of ashes”. Whereas another suggests “that we don’t need to preserve buildings” and should in some circumstances “knock them down and get on with building something to today's codes”. However, Bob Bantock, Heritage Fire Safety Specialist for the National Trust reflects the opinions of the majority of respondents stating, “There is a bit more to the fire safety strategy than just two options and we try and have a blended approach.”

The challenge is clearly getting the blend right.

One of the principal reasons the task can be problematic is that heritage buildings come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes; and are used for many different purposes. They extend from iconic buildings such as the Tower of London and Canterbury Cathedral, to more modern buildings from the Barbican Estate and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. However, the vast majority of listed premises are private dwellings.

Regardless of type, nature and use of historic buildings the objective for owners and custodians is to preserve our heritage ‘for ever, for everyone’. However, as most heritage buildings were constructed without any real consideration of fire safety, they provide  challenges in terms of the approaches taken today to ensure fire safety, including life safety and the preservation of the property and its contents.

Challenges can be many and varied but commonly stem principally from the materials used in construction and internal layouts; commonly lack of compartmentation or protected routes, the high fire load offered by traditional construction materials, roof voids that are complex in design and cover vast distances that have the potential for fire spread and a lack of records pertaining to the fire integrity of materials used during earlier refurbishment.

Respondents have highlighted a number of key issues that could be required in any scheme to improve fire safety which are worthy of consideration – not all of them are breaking new ground, but certainly help in understanding the range of options that may be available.

Compartmentation

Given the issues in relation to design, and materials used in the construction of heritage buildings, the application of improved standards of compartmentation is a common objective in ensuring that if a fire does start its extent is limited. I had the privilege to be involved in the work following the fire at Hampton Court Palace. Compartmentation became a primary feature, with the building divided into four quarters. To preserve ornate ceilings, floors were lifted (vast volumes of crushed sea-shells used to deaden sound between floors were removed) and fire resisting materials laid beneath floorboards to provide effective separation and preserve the look of the building. 

Responses to our question recognised the need for improved standards of compartmentation but also raised some important issues with one highlighting “replacement fire doors are of little practical use if the wall/screens in which they are located do not match their resistance. It is therefore important to respect the design of heritage buildings wherever possible, but compartmentation must be paramount to prevent the rapid spread of fire.” 

Detection, suppression or both?

Looking toward other options in terms of systems and equipment before considering management policies and procedures, it is clear that both detection and protection measures have been successfully implemented in heritage premises. 

One respondent strongly supports the use of detection and suppression over upgrading compartmentation stating “If the interior has historical, susceptible, fragile composition then to replace with fire doors and compartmentation is sacrilege beyond measure! The best solution would be a system of sensors and sprinklers.”

But which? Where the aesthetics of the premises to be protected are paramount, the installation of detection and suppression systems in what we might consider their traditional form has the potential to be unsightly. However, respondents highlight that “Aspirating smoke detection has been available for heritage premises for many years and has dropped in cost while improving in performance and ease of installation” Such systems are primarily used in locations where very early detection of the presence of smoke is required. They utilise only small holes in pipes and can, in some cases, be ideally suited for covert installation in the ornate plasterwork of historic buildings. Aspirating detection protects the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral, Dublin’s Chapel Royal and London’s National Gallery. 

Similarly, respondents recognise that the use of sprinklers or other forms of suppression may be appropriate in some circumstances with one stating “some minor intrusion to protect from fire e.g. a concealed sprinkler head is surely more desirable than losing all to the effects of a fire.” Where the misconceptions associated with their use (if one goes off, they all go off) can be assuaged for owners, sprinklers offer an effective option. They have been successfully installed in many historic buildings from the National Library of Wales, Bicester Priory and Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre.

Manage it out

Despite the availability of systems to aid effective detection and suppression of a fire, the most effective approach must be to take action to stop a fire happening in the first place. Any physical changes must be accompanied by a high degree of fire safety management in the property, including enhanced fire safety training for staff. 

Respondents to the question offer a range of helpful opinions suggesting “It would be a shame to remove the character of the building by using modern styled inappropriate materials and measures. Strong, enforced, policies and practices are the best way to prevent a fire from starting in the first place” and “For me it’s about control of risk, permit to work systems, infrastructure maintenance and communication of risks to owners and occupants.”

It is not uncommon for accidental fires to be started as a result of poorly maintained equipment or hot work activities. Wherever practical steps should be taken to eliminate potential inception hazards as indicated by one respondent who highlights “electrics, open fires, special ‘events’ and cooking activities” and supported by others who recognise the risks from aged electrical systems, temporary installations and candles.

All custodians of historic buildings should have in place relevant procedures, including a fire safety policy which establishes high level fire safety objectives and includes the arrangements for planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of fire safety measures. Good standards of fire safety training for staff and room stewards, are also paramount. Given the risks and potential for catastrophic loss, the use of organisations certified by a UKAS accredited certification body for such is a good way of effecting good safety standards. But what happens if the worst happens? Having a business continuity plan is essential and complimentary to the sites manual and strategy.

What about insurance?

Insurance is essential, but it should be remembered that insurers assess the likely risks to which a building is exposed when calculating premiums. If a building has been subject to a proper suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment and if the appropriate fire safety measures are in place, premiums may be lower. If an automatic fire suppression system is in place, larger discounts may be allowed. However, implementing effective systems and controls shouldn’t be seen as secondary to conservation objectives but complimentary. One respondent highlights their experience “There is no point in conserving with huge capital outlays unless in the future the building can be virtually guaranteed to still be there. Few conservationists seem to understand that, probably by assuming insurance cover will allow reinstatement in future, should need arise.” Of course, although the usual form of cover for heritage buildings is reinstatement cover, trying to replace the irreplaceable could prove to be impossible.

There may also be alternative approaches to effecting better fire safety standards. One response highlights a recent hotel stay in a Tudor building where “the original doors had been fixed against the wall so they were no longer in use but clearly visible for everyone to admire, with a modern fire door providing the required safety measures.” 

Whatever approach is taken to the protection of our important historic buildings, what is clear is that there is no one size fits all approach. It seems to me that the most important factors in the blend is ensuring effective management control and maintenance – which need not impact on the look and feel of a building at all. Getting this right is a good place from which to build.

Howard Passey is a principal consultant at the Fire Protection Association.