The fire that ravaged Notre Dame earlier this year – making headlines as the world watched the 850-year-old building burn – was far from the only such disaster that has damaged cultural heritage buildings around the globe in recent years. In 2018, the National Museum in Brazil experienced its own inferno, while that same year, the Jokhang Temple in Tibet and the Glasgow School of Arts in the UK were impacted by blazes as well.
In fact, in its recent “Heritage Fire White Paper,” FM Global detailed a dozen fires that impacted heritage sites between 2014 and 2019 – events that often prompted an outpouring of public grief and resulted in the loss of national treasures.
Despite their cultural significance, there are a few challenges in protecting heritage structures from fire risk.
“The primary challenge is that these heritage buildings are very old and a lot of them are very fragile because of their age,” said Chris Wieczorek (pictured), FM Global‘s VP of international codes and standards, adding that many are made from timber. “Therefore, as they’re hundreds of years old in some cases, they are highly combustible, so protecting them from fire is very challenging because they will readily burn, and a lot of the artefacts that are inside these buildings have a similar type of construction – [from] paper or fragile wood and materials like that – that are very combustible.”
With Notre Dame, the fire reportedly started in some of the combustible spaces and the ceiling of the building. Sparks from the electrical work, for example, can ignite these combustible areas and the fire can quickly develop in those spaces, remaining undetected for a long period of time.
Several key fire risk mitigation strategies can be adapted in cultural heritage buildings, such as installing sprinkler systems, though there are obstacles to their implementation.
“Sharing the proper knowledge about automatic fire sprinklers and dispelling the myths about them is very powerful. Prior to the start of a recent conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on protecting museums and heritage buildings, the audience was surveyed and asked how many believed automatic fire sprinklers should be used in museums, libraries, and archives,” explained Wieczorek. “Less than 50% of the participants believed they were appropriate. The survey was repeated after the conference concluded and the number increased to 70%. This demonstrates that many heritage buildings and historical artefacts are lost forever because of a lack of knowledge and understanding.”
A lot of people perceive that sprinklers will do more harm than good, primarily because of accidental sprinkler discharge, which could result in water damage. In reality, sprinkler systems have been shown to be very effective in controlling fires and can be retrofitted into any type of building, whether it’s an old historical building or a new modern building, added Wieczorek.
“Risk managers and building owners concerned that automatic fire sprinklers will potentially cause water damage need to remember that materials that are damaged by water can be restored,” he added. “However, ashes can not be reassembled like puzzle pieces. Buildings and artefacts lost in a fire are lost forever.”
These systems become that much more important considering that many heritage buildings are located in remote areas with limited access to water that might also impede the timely arrival of firefighting crews.
With Notre Dame, for example, “the streets around the structure are very narrow and news reports from the day of the event stated that the fire service had a lot of trouble getting to the scene and being able to set up their apparatus to fight the fire,” said the FM Global expert. “This is another reason why having an automatic sprinkler system installed would be beneficial. Because the automatic sprinkler systems are right there on the scene the moment a fire occurs, this doesn’t require waiting for the fire service to arrive. This is true for many of these heritage locations all around the world because a lot of them are in these very remote locations.”
Another strategy that can be used to protect these buildings is compartmentalisation, whereby compartments designed within the building won’t let the fire penetrate out of that space. However, by using compartmentalisation, the architect is committing to losing a portion of that building since a compartment will prevent the spread of fire outside of it, but the compartment itself will be damaged. Again, sprinkler systems are the better option.
“Sprinklers will control the fire once it happens and prevent it from spreading even within that compartment,” said Wieczorek.