Specifier Review
Notre Dame

Old buildings are at their most vulnerable when undergoing repairs

Lessons to be learnt from the Notre Dame fire

Last year in the UK some 300 his­toric build­ings were dam­aged by fires, with many occur­ring whilst under­go­ing ren­o­va­tions or repairs. There is an online nation­al data­base of fires ​in her­itage buildings that records all report­ed fires, and so far in 2019 they have 152 fires noted.

Archa­ic build­ings are par­tic­u­lar­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to the fast spread­ing of fire due to dry old wood, voids and cav­i­ties in walls, floors and ceil­ings, effec­tive­ly pro­vid­ing ​‘run­ways’ for the flames. Wind­sor Castle’s 1992 fire, for exam­ple, was sparked by a workman’s spot­light acci­den­tal­ly set­ting a cur­tain alight in Queen Victoria’s Pri­vate Chapel.

Build­ings under­go­ing refur­bish­ment are vul­ner­a­ble as they’re like­ly to have exposed wires and tim­ber, and poten­tial­ly hot works occur­ring as part of the ren­o­va­tion. All con­struc­tion sites are high-risk safe­ty areas in any case, as all it takes is a spark from a sander, an abra­sive chop-saw, a blow torch or ash from a cig­a­rette, to ignite com­mon and flam­ma­ble con­struc­tion mate­ri­als like wood, sol­vents, pack­ag­ing and fuel. Fire swept through the top floor of the Paris Ritz Hotel as it was under­go­ing refur­bish­ment a cou­ple of years back, with 150 build­ing work­ers evac­u­at­ed from the site, and more recent­ly, a huge fire destroyed a sev­en storey apart­ment build­ing under con­struc­tion in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So, fol­low­ing the tragedy of the 886-year-old Notre Dame fire in Paris last week, what can we learn from these occur­rences to try and reduce the risks?

First­ly, ensure there’s a reg­u­lar fire risk assess­ment in place – for ​‘sta­t­ic’ build­ings (i.e. not under­go­ing any repairs or refur­bish­ment works), they can vary from annu­al to every 3 or 4 years, but con­struc­tion sites or build­ings under­go­ing works can be very dynam­ic, with the site chang­ing almost on a dai­ly basis. In these cir­cum­stances it makes sense to have a more reg­u­lar fire risk assess­ment to ensure that any changes to the lay­out that the works have cre­at­ed are tak­en into account. One fire offi­cer gave me a tip recent­ly when walk­ing through a site. To ensure that all the fire doors have been checked and opened, inspec­tors stick a lit­tle date sheet on the inside of the door frame. Invis­i­ble when the door is shut, every time they inspect­ed and opened the door, they jot down the date on the paper list. A sim­ple but effec­tive way for the prop­er­ty man­ag­er to make sure the assessor/​inspector is car­ry­ing out their job.

Sec­ond­ly, install tem­po­rary fire detec­tion equip­ment whilst works are being car­ried out. Wire­less tech­nolo­gies avail­able now allow for CE approved fire alarm systems to be installed with­out hav­ing to be cabled in and dam­age the frame­work or basic infra­struc­ture of a her­itage site, or of a new build for that mat­ter. Fire extin­guish­ers, blan­kets and escape route sig­nage are all rel­a­tive­ly easy to obtain and install. For par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant sites, or ones which are envi­ron­men­tal­ly at high risk, ​‘Smart’ CCTV Tow­ers can be deployed very quick­ly to main­tain a fire alert even when the site is desert­ed, say at night. They can also be eas­i­ly re-aligned in dif­fer­ent spaces as the repair works move through the premis­es. CCTV tow­ers can have fire sen­sors attached and be con­nect­ed to a 247 mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion. If an alarm is trig­gered, the mon­i­tor­ing cen­tre can ver­i­fy whether it is a fire or a false alarm, sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing the hin­drance of fire ser­vices being called out in error.

Notre Dame Fire

Final­ly, every­one on site should be made fire safe­ty aware – there’s plen­ty of sim­ple mate­ri­als avail­able on line – and there’s no bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so than after a major blaze has occurred, such as Notre Dame. The dan­gers and risks are real­ly high in people’s minds after these sort of events, and staff may be less blasé about them. There should be a local­ly on-site fire safe­ty lead, to car­ry out reg­u­lar sweeps check­ing the site is com­pli­ant with the assess­ment. Even hav­ing some­one walk round on a dai­ly basis wear­ing a fire safe­ty arm band helps to raise awareness.


Tel: 0330 005 5300 – tellmemore@​vpsgroup.​com.