Fire is a major hazard to cultural heritage buildings around the globe. Severe fires have almost completely destroyed libraries, museums, palaces, and cathedrals. The recent fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was the latest in a growing list of such tragedies involving the world’s cultural heritage (Table 1). Such events have resulted in a massive outpouring of national and global grief, anger at the loss of national treasures and huge and unrealistic commitments to rebuilding. However, the combination of the construction, contents, and the challenges to the introduction of fire protection features into existing buildings means that these fires will continue unless there is a commitment to something quite possible, but very different.
The challenge of protecting cultural heritage properties from fire
These buildings are unique and require solutions that are tailored for each location. Due to their age, cultural heritage buildings are often constructed of combustible materials with numerous combustible voids within them. Their contents are often precious, but also often very combustible.
At the same time these old buildings are subject to significant ongoing renovations and repairs. These seek to retain much of the original features of a property and there is resistance to disturbing or changing them too much as we seek to share an authentic view of these properties.
The introduction of modern fire protection methods is often dismissed; fire barriers, fire doors, detection systems and automatic fire protection systems are seen as intrusive. They will spoil the aesthetics of the property and alter its original form. However, the retention of those same combustible features has made these buildings extremely vulnerable to fire, especially during renovation periods when hot work or additional equipment are brought to the building to conduct the repairs. This means such buildings are susceptible to common ignition sources, and once ignition occurs, a fire will almost inevitably spread to the available combustibles.
The collections inside these buildings are often of high value, irreplaceable, and can be very sensitive to smoke, dust and humidity. As such, they require firefighting methods that are precise, reliable and that cause the least possible amount of collateral damage.
As good as our systems of management of potential ignition sources may become and the speed at which fire services can respond to such ignitions, they have clearly been shown to be inadequate; hence these destructive fires will continue. Therefore, it is vital that we open our thinking to the means by which we can protect such buildings, retain their character, but limit the potential significant damage from such fire events.
Arts and heritage fires in the UK
There have been several high-profile fires involving heritage properties in the U.K. Each has raised questions about the level of protection for such properties and our national heritage. Notable amongst them was Clandon Park House, an 18th-century mansion in Surrey, where a fire in April 2015 destroyed thousands of historic items. In October 2016 the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter, considered England’s oldest hotel, was consumed by fire.
The Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Building demonstrates the devastating impact of fire on such heritage. The building was severely damaged by fire in May 2014. During reconstruction on 15 June 2018, another fire broke out. The flames spread to neighbouring properties. More than 120 firefighters and 20 fire engines were called to extinguish the blaze.
There has been a clamor to understand how this happened. Where were the fire sprinkler systems? Why had not everything possible been done to protect this irreplaceable piece of Scotland’s heritage?
The National Museum Fire in Rio
The September 2018 fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, received worldwide coverage. The fire destroyed the largest anthropological collection in Latin America consisting of about 20 million artifacts, including the earliest human remains found in the continent.
The building had reportedly been in dire need of repair, and the lack of a fire sprinkler system was arguably one of many problems. Structural and electrical deficiencies needed urgent attention, and a contribution for emergency repairs had just been signed with the Brazilian development bank, BNDES.
The official investigation concluded that the fire started in an auditorium on the first floor of the building, due to an overloaded electrical connection of three air conditioning units to a single circuit breaker.
This was yet another in a long list of fires involving Brazilian cultural resources in recent years. In 2015, the Museum of the Portuguese Language, one of the most visited museums in São Paulo and Latin America, was extensively damaged by a fire started by construction work. In 2013, the auditorium of the Latin American Memorial in São Paulo, designed by renowned Brazilian architect Carlos Niemeyer, was damaged in a fire. In 2011, the São Pedro de Alcantara Chapel in Rio de Janeiro, built in 1850, was destroyed by a fire reportedly started by welding operations. In 2010, a fire at Butantã Institute in São Paulo, destroyed the largest collection of snakes in the world, composed of 85,000 specimens collected over the last 120 years.
There have been several historical and library buildings that have been severely impacted by fire across Asia in recent years.
The National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi was due to be relocated to a new facility because the museum was dilapidated and needed extensive renovation. Unfortunately, before this could be done, a fire broke out in an area of the museum that did not have automatic fire protection. Numerous exhibits and more than half the exhibition space were lost.
Across China there have been fires in temple complexes and buildings. In the area of Tibetan habitat that is said to have inspired the stories of Shangri-La, the Dukezong fire in 2014 destroyed over 240 buildings and countless items. The dense wooden structures, cold weather and challenges with access to water for firefighting hampered efforts to save the properties. In 2017, the Lingguan Mansion complex in Sichuan province was undergoing reconstruction following a devastating earthquake when a fire destroyed the 16-storey pagoda and adjoining temple. Late in 2018 a fire damaged the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a UNESCO Heritage site. The temple is reported to be undergoing repair.
Fire protection strategies
The traditional concepts of fire protection for such buildings are all valid. Their application to the heritage buildings will have increased challenges in terms of assessment, design, installation and cost. Importantly, installing fire protection can have an impact on the aesthetics of the properties. However, before discounting such protection for this reason alone, one needs to consider the potential consequences of a fire.
A fire detection system can trigger action around identifying the area of the fire, shutting down electrical systems, evacuating a building and summoning the fire and rescue services. There are several fire-detection technologies such as beam detectors for large spaces, multi-sensor devices for complicated spaces or air sampling systems for very sensitive spaces.
Fire incidents also raise the challenge of access for firefighting and access to water. These buildings are often in locations that are hard to access and where deploying fire hoses can be difficult. This is an element that needs to be understood, prepared and planned for in any emergency response.
A basic concept in fire protection comes in the form of compartmentation to limit fire spread within the building. This could take the form of firewalls, barriers in combustible roof spaces or barriers to limit fire spread in voids. Compartmentation is intrusive but will delay fire spread and contain the fire to an area that a property owner is “willing to lose.”
A form of fire protection that generates much debate is the use of active fire protection systems. Where speed in tackling fire is of the essence, these systems offer a huge advantage in combination with the other strategies. Yet these systems are rarely found in heritage properties.
Following the devastating fire in Notre Dame Cathedral, it is not surprising that there were questions about the absence or non-use of automatic fire sprinklers. Automatic sprinklers have an excellent track record as a method to control or suppress fires in numerous types of occupancies. A recent study in the U.K. by the National Fire Chiefs Council placed their reliability and effectiveness in the 90th percentile. Years of cumulative research still show that water used by these systems is the fastest, safest, and most efficient way to control or extinguish a fire. Despite the effectiveness and reliability of this 150-year-old fire protection technology, sprinklers can still be controversial. The controversy is not about how well sprinklers perform during a fire but rather the fear that sprinklers will activate when there is no fire, causing irreparable water damage to the building contents, as depicted in many a Hollywood blockbuster.
This argument is repeated in sectors such as health care, warehouses, and areas handling electronics. These are all areas where sprinklers have demonstrated very positive results in controlling fires, but the fear persists that water from an open sprinkler will damage sophisticated electronic equipment or drench a patient.
The data does not support this lopsided view. Sprinklers are actuated separately when each one is exposed to enough heat. A 10-year study of FM Global data in claims for electronic assembly type facilities revealed that the average loss for fire in electronic assembly facilities without sprinklers was seven times that of the average sprinkler leakage damage.
Despite such data, no other area seems as sensitive to the fear of water damage as that of arts and heritage buildings. A prevailing opinion in this field, and repeated since the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, is that sprinklers will do more harm than good, irreversibly damaging sensitive works of art by accidentally operating in non-fire situations.
Instead of arguing over what is too difficult to achieve or dismissing solutions for fear of lesser consequences, perhaps we should look at systems that have a proven track record of success, and implement them wisely for the unique challenges of this application.
Learning from history?
In the Glasgow School of Art fires, the owners wanted to install automatic fire protection. They had considered the impact of a fire and recognized it was worth the investment–learning the lesson from history. Unfortunately, the fire broke out before action could be taken. If automatic protection had been installed, the outcomes could have been very different.
It is therefore surprising to note that a few weeks after the National Museum fire in Brazil, the federal government agency responsible for management of cultural resources, IPHAN, issued a document to regulate fire protection in historical buildings and cultural resources. In this document, the aversion to water in museums and similar buildings is reiterated, virtually prohibiting the use of automatic sprinklers, by stating that, “The use of automatic sprinkler protection will only be allowed in areas where there are no collections that can be damaged by water.” The lack of a definition within the IPHAM decree for what constitutes a collection that can be damaged by water leaves the issue open to speculation.
On a positive note, approximately seven months after the National Museum fire, the Brazilian federal government finalized a project to upgrade electrical installations and improve fire protection measures in 200 historical buildings and federal museums.
Two museums in the city of São Paulo, the Museum of the Portuguese Language (MPL) and Ypiranga Museum are being totally rebuilt and will be protected by sprinklers. At MPL, the work is already underway and will be completed in January 2020. There is now a growing list of cultural heritage sites that are using active forms of fire protection (Table 2).
Our heritage is very precious to us and teaches us a lot. History clearly shows that heritage buildings, due to their age, construction and contents are vulnerable to fire. Once destroyed, they are impossible to replace. Fires across the globe destroy this heritage during renovations or simply by everyday ignition sources. The fire events are followed by immense national grief, anger, fundraising and commitments to rebuild. Yet we still see heritage sites burn.
We want to continue to enjoy and learn from these cultural heritage buildings. We cannot lock them up to control and police them for fear of damage from such incidents. Globally, organizations strive to have them open to the public. As good as our systems of management of potential ignition sources may become and the speed at which fire services can respond to such ignitions, these destructive fires will continue. Therefore, it is vital that we open our thinking to the means by which we can protect such buildings, retain their character but limit the potential damage from such fire events.
The enviable track record of fire sprinklers over their 150-year history shows they are worthy of further consideration for protecting buildings and their contents from fire. We should pursue all possibilities for their inclusion, weighing the benefits of limiting damage and operational continuity against what could be lost from a fire and the potential for water release. The data would indicate that fire is more frequent and far more damaging than sprinkler leakage. More simply put, an accidental release of water may damage an object and remedial work may be required but fire will destroy, and a building and its contents are likely to be lost forever.
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