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Fire safety in heritage and listed buildings

Jun 21, 2023 | Fire Safety

Fire safety in heritage and listed buildings
Our heritage and listed buildings are some of the UK’s greatest treasures.

Bringing a sense of time, place, and permanence, their grandeur and history help to shape the British identity. But they are not without their problems! If you happen to be responsible for a heritage site, you’ll be all too aware of the difficulties managing them bring. Not least of which, is fire protection.

Anyone old enough to remember the fire at Windsor Castle, will be conscious of how easy it is for small fires to break out. And just how quickly they can escalate without contemporary preventative measures in place. And while any building fire holds the potential to be devastating, the destruction of a listed building is about so much more than physical value. So, understanding how to provide heritage and listed buildings with the optimum fire protection is vitally important.

Understanding Fire Safety in Heritage and Listed Buildings

There are two main difficulties when approaching fire safety in heritage and listed buildings.

 

1. Site preservation

One of the greatest fire safety challenges in heritage and listed buildings is the thing that makes it so necessary: the historical elements. Without the need to preserve all the special architectural features or avoid anachronistic contrasts, the process would be relatively easy. But when you are trying to keep a property safe – as well as all of its occupants and contents – without changing the essence of the structure, you are faced with some complex decisions.

2. Materials and structure

Construction practices have undergone a fundamental change in the last fifty years. While buildings are now planned with fire safety at their core, historically, that wasn’t the case. Cavity barriers weren’t created until the late-1960s. Fire walls weren’t introduced until the mid-1980s. In fact, many heritage buildings are so far from including contemporary fire safety features as to have genuine fire hazards incorporated – such as hidden structural voids, which enable fires to spread quickly and without detection.

And the construction materials used for what we now consider to be period properties were generally far more combustible. All of which works together to make fire far more likely to break out and far more difficult to control.

How can you best address fire safety in heritage and listed buildings

How can you best address fire safety in heritage and listed buildings?

There are five main areas of consideration.

 

1. Fire risk assessment

No matter the age or type of building, all fire safety decisions must be governed by a thorough fire risk assessment. While it is possible for a fire risk assessment to be conducted by a lay-person, in the case of listed and heritage buildings, it is always wise to work with a professional. This will help you identify all potential fire risks in the building. Enabling you to make informed decisions about the best management of the space.

2. Fire detection systems

Fire detection and smoke alarm systems are your first line of defence against fires. The difficulty can be in finding a system that will provide adequate protection without interfering with the aesthetics of the property. In many cases wireless systems are the best solution as they don’t ruin the aesthetics of a building but provide early warning in the event of a fire if installed correctly, this is why it’s important to speak to a fire safety professional to find the best detection system for your building.

3. Fire extinguishing equipment

While they’re hard to disguise (and really shouldn’t be), fire extinguishers are a must for all listed and heritage buildings. There are different types of extinguisher to combat different fires, but in most areas, a foam extinguisher will suffice. For small fires, at least. With wet chemical extinguishers for kitchens. And CO² extinguishers for electrical equipment.

The problems come with tackling larger conflagrations. Many heritage and listed building owners are reluctant to install sprinkler systems. Partly because of the aesthetic and the impact on building structure. And partly because of the potential for water damage. This is why it’s vital to speak with an expert so these decisions can be made on a case-by-case basis, tailored to your building.

4. Emergency lighting

Emergency lighting is another area that many listed building owners struggle with. Its nature means that it can be impossible to make it inconspicuous when not in use. Especially if the building hasn’t been connected to mains electricity. In most cases, emergency lighting is not obligatory. But if you think it necessary for your heritage building, there are a number of options available. Including integrated lighting and free-standing emergency lighting. Historic England also suggests the use of trained guides with torches.

5. Fixtures and fittings

While fire doors are a staple of contemporary construction, in most instances they will dramatically impact the aesthetic and historical authenticity of a heritage property. But it is possible to upgrade the fire safety existing doors, or create fire-rated copies in the original design. While steps can be taken to protect highly combustible materials from potential sources of ignition.

 

Managing fire safety for heritage and listed buildings is a complex process. In most cases, it will require the development of unique solutions and workarounds. Steps that will enable the historical integrity of the building to remain intact. Without lessening the overall protection of the provided solution. And the best people to do that are dedicated fire safety professionals.

 

1st Class Fire Protection is an industry-leading fire protection company. Serving customers throughout Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and the surrounding areas, we provide full installation and maintenance for the complete range of fire protection solutions for heritage buildings and listed buildings of all sizes. Get in touch to discuss the unique needs of your property.

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