From the Technical Director: Fire Protection in Historically Significant Buildings
By Morgan J. Hurley, P.E., FSFPE | Fire Protection Engineering
Historically significant buildings represent a fire safety dichotomy.
On one hand, it is necessary to reduce the vulnerability of the site to
fire. Reducing the vulnerability to fire might involve installing fire
safety measures, such as detection systems, suppression systems, or fire
containment. On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid fire safety
upgrades that would damage the historic fabric of a heritage site. One
desires to avoid fires that could damage or destroy a building that is
quite old; similarly, well-intentioned fire safety features should not
damage or destroy the very features that are intended to be protected.
existing buildings that are not historically significant – like a
modern nightclub with high occupancy – requiring fire safety upgrades is
only a matter of financial and safety concern between the owner and the
regulators. If deemed necessary, the installation of fire safety
upgrades, like a sprinkler system, would not alter the function of the
facility. However, for heritage sites, the historic fabric is an
embodiment of the purpose of the building.
a typical building, there are two main parties involved in the design:
the design team itself, which represents the owner, and the code
officials who review the design. The design team is responsible for
preparing a design that meets their client's needs and provides an
acceptable level of safety. An acceptable level of safety is usually
provided via compliance with the applicable codes and standards. In the
case of a heritage site, it is useful to have a third party involved –
one who is responsible for maintaining the historic nature of the
building. This person would verify that any upgrades do not permanently
damage the historic elements of the building, or if damage is deemed
necessary, that the damage is minimized.
Several publications worldwide address preservation of historically significant buildings, and they share many common elements.1, 2, 3
Paramount is a desire to preserve these buildings for future
generations, both by reducing the risk of loss to fire and by avoiding
damage by the installation of fire safety components.
to beginning any fire safety upgrades, it is first necessary to gain an
understanding and appreciation for the historic nature of the building.
Through this understanding, it is possible to avoid measures that would
– although well-intentioned – cause irreparable damage themselves.
the design team should include a historic preservation officer. This is
a person who would generally be distinct from the fire safety engineer
and the fire enforcement official. This person would represent the
interests of the historic aspects of the building, and would balance the
desires of the other members of the design team.
common element is flexibility. The same fire safety approaches that are
used in a new building or in the renovation of an existing, but not
historic, building may not be feasible in a historic property. It may be
necessary to look at alternate measures of achieving fire safety goals.
In some instances, preservation of the historic fabric itself may be
deemed more important that simple code compliance.
significant buildings will rarely comply with modern fire safety
requirements. Additionally, it is usually not possible to bring historic
buildings into full compliance with existing fire safety requirements
without damaging the historic nature of the building itself. Therefore,
flexibility is necessary. This is alluded to in the historic
Watts4 identified five common problems associated with meeting fire safety requirements in historic buildings:
Meeting dimensional requirements
Achieving required fire resistance
Meeting egress requirements
Addressing problems with installed features
Avoiding aesthetic intrusions
a performance-based design is necessary to meet both the life safety
goals for a historic building while also preserving the historic
elements. The design could either be done on a true performance basis,
where the focus is solely on meeting goals and objectives, or on a
comparative basis, where a prescriptive code will be used, but
alternative measures will be used to meet provisions for which strict
compliance is impractical. The latter is still a performance-based
design, albeit with a more narrow focus.
"The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS
Charter for Places of Cultural Significance,” Australia ICOMOS, Deakin
University, Burwood, VIC, 1999.
International Charter for the
Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (Venice Charter
1964) International Council on Monuments and Sites, Paris,1964.
NFPA 914, Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2010.
Watts, J. "Rehabilitating Existing Buildings,” Fire Protection Engineering, Spring, 1999, pp. 6 -15
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