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Fire Protection in Historically Significant Buildings
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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.

For 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.

For 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.

Prior 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.

Also, 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.

Another 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.

Historically 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 preservation guidelines.

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

Generally, 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.


  1. "The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance,” Australia ICOMOS, Deakin University, Burwood, VIC, 1999.
  2. International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (Venice Charter 1964) International Council on Monuments and Sites, Paris,1964.
  3. NFPA 914, Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2010.
  4. Watts, J. "Rehabilitating Existing Buildings,” Fire Protection Engineering, Spring, 1999, pp. 6 -15

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