Adrian Attwood on why historic landmark fires happen and how to stop them

Adrian Attwood grey

With the recent fire at Nantes Cathedral and the shocking Notre Dame blaze which brought down its iconic spire, it has become evident that historic buildings need stronger and better protection.

While sadly some of these fires are a result of arson, others are due to poor workmanship and inadequate implementation of fire safety procedures.

Often historic building owners will employ general construction companies for restoration works, and that is when things can go wrong. Problems arise when they believe fires can easily be prevented by regular safety measures, however there is much more involved when it comes to older buildings.

Meticulous attention to detail needs to be applied when working on these types of buildings. Crucially, fire safety measures must not be implemented haphazardly or ignored altogether, no matter what the cost or timeframe. If they are, the consequences could be devastating.

Various avoidable mistakes made during the construction phase are often the reason for fires in historic buildings.

One of the most common errors is using an unskilled or unqualified team to carry out fire improvement works, which is poor practice, and frankly, unacceptable. Further, although fire safety training is essential for the building managers, contractors and the people who occupy it, similar to the undertaking of regular fire safety surveys, it is often neglected. This is extremely dangerous for both those who work in and visit the site as well as the building itself.

Another issue regularly encountered is damage caused to the historic fabric by using inappropriate materials to upgrade fire safety. It is crucial that the correct tools and knowledge are used when carrying out fire safety works in a historic building, otherwise the fabric can be left in an even weaker and more vulnerable state than it was originally in.

Seeking out solutions

New fire safety legislation should not solely be seen as applicable to new buildings and modern retrofit - it has to apply to historic buildings as well. In fact, historic buildings are often much more at risk, especially if they are timber framed or the structure has eroded or been adapted inappropriately over time.

When embarking on conservation and restoration works, there must be a will to deliver a safe project. Fireproofing a historic landmark requires ingenuity and creativity, but it can be done if the appropriate steps are taken and the right knowledge is applied.

There are many ways to upgrade the fire safety features of an older building, from installing fire doors and screens to more long-term strategies, such as developing a robust fire safety plan and maintaining regular testing and improvement works. Although there are some associated challenges with these solutions, they will protect the site and save lives.

Due to the age of historic buildings, it is vital that competent contractors and skilled conservation craftspeople are employed to handle these projects. These buildings are where fires are most easily started and quickly spread, so when the owner (or the builder for that matter) tries to cut corners, it is simply a disaster waiting to happen.

Fireproofing a historic building is by no means an easy process, however it is also not an optional one. There needs to be a high level of commitment to the safety of the building and its employees, residents and visitors. The good news is, with the right team and expertise, fires can be avoided, and history can in turn be preserved for both current and future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

Adrian Attwood, executive director of DBR