The recent fire at Notre Dame in Paris has, once again, turned the spotlight on how susceptible heritage buildings are to fire. Throughout the ages, devastating fires have robbed mankind of its knowledge, art and treasures. Prior to the Notre Dame fire, Brazil’s Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most important cultural institutions in South America, burned down in September 2018 and closer to home there was the fire at the Glasgow School of Art (Mackintosh Building) in June 2018. Recent analysis has indicated that most of the devastating fires that have occurred in historical buildings occurred during restoration works, through faulty electrical systems or through adverse weather events (for example, lightning strikes).

How can engineers protect structures for future generations

Reading through Raf Casert’s article on the Notre Dame fire, he outlined his concerns about the thousands of cathedrals, palaces and other monuments that have turned many sites in Europe into open air museums. His key question posed was on how we, as engineers, and a society, can protect these structures for future generations. The Irish experience of ensuring the survival of our built heritage has been a chequered one. Since the 1960s Ireland has witnessed significant changes to its urban and rural environments. With the current pace of national development, it is important to prevent the loss of interesting architecture and to become aware of our unique buildings and streetscapes. Unlike the majority of mainland Europe, Ireland has just two UNESCO recognised sites - Bru na Boinne in Co Meath and Skellig Michael in Co Kerry. However, each county in the country has an impressive number of sites that have national historical importance.

Major local economic importance

These sites are not just celebrated for their architecture and socio-historical importance but are often linked to significant tourist traffic and have major local economic importance. The importance of tourism to the national economy cannot be overestimated. In the Failte Ireland document 'Driving Tourism Sustaining Communities - Our Priorities to 2017', the performance of tourism is inextricably linked with the landscape, our built heritage and our culture. The tourism policy statement, 'People, Place and Policy – Tourism to 2025' sets out clear targets for the development of Irish tourism aiming to welcome 10 million visitors by 2025 with associated revenues of €5 billion and sustaining 250,000 persons in employment. As professionals working in fire prevention, dealing with these buildings presents a challenge. It is all too easy to start applying modern requirements on buildings that predate the foundation of the state, let alone the requirements of the current building regulations. Irish technical guidance in the area of fire prevention in heritage buildings is pretty limited, with the area of fire safety being included in Appendix 2 of the RIAI Guidelines for the Conservation of Buildings (2010). The Department of the Environment document 'Architectural Heritage Protection – Guidelines for Planning Authorities (2011)' offers, in Chapter 17, a list of things that one must not do when dealing with fire safety in historical settings.

Seek international best practice

This list is helpful, but certainly not exhaustive, in providing guidance in designing improvements to the existing fabric of the building and it is necessary to seek international best practice. The key elements that need to be addressed in examining fire safety in any structure, including historical buildings, are how the building can be safely evacuated, how to limit fire spread within the building fabric (surfacing linings and compartmentation) and preventing fire spread to neighbouring buildings, that is, to prevent conflagration. Most conservation works to historical buildings consist of interventions to prevent the decay and prolong their life. This regular maintenance to prevent decay costs money and sourcing this money is a problem that has been exacerbated following the recent financial crisis. Noting the importance of tourism within Europe, the EU has allotted about €5 billion for restorations in the 2014-2020 financial budget, to add to what member governments provide.

Seeking private donors to renovate major monuments

As state funding dries up, governments are increasingly looking for private donors to renovate major monuments, as has been in case in Italy where various fashion houses supported recent conservation works at the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum in Rome. These heavily researched works are carried out in an atmosphere of safeguarding the building without compromising its historical features. A balance must therefore be struck in making the building safe for public use, improving its fire resistance by non-intrusive measures and working with conservation professionals to jointly reach a solution. Examples of successful refurbishment projects recently completed in Ireland include the works undertaken at the National Gallery where a new enclosed courtyard was achieved using a combination of measures including the refurbishment of existing windows with fire-resisting glazing as well as a water mist system to act as a fire suppression method, should fire be detected. Finally, it is worth taking on board the recommendation made by the Bailey Report (1992) following the Windsor Castle fire that each historic house, building or premises should have a written fire safety policy statement. It recommended that there is a need for effective internal mechanisms to ensure that the policy is properly implemented, and the policy should cover not only the normal operating regime of the location but take account of special or occasional events. Author: Pat Hunt, CEng, FIEI, senior assistant chief fire officer, Westmeath Fire & Rescue Service