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Challenges and Opportunities of Fire Safety Research on New Zealand Cultural Heritage

By: Dennis Pau and Matthew Hughes, University of Canterbury, New Zealand


Cultural heritage buildings have great significance to a society as these buildings convey invaluable culture and historic information to the communities [1]. The current building design and construction practice typically focuses on delivering buildings with optimized functionality, cost and aesthetic [2]. However, for cultural heritage buildings, the aesthetic will often have greater importance over the functionality and cost, as the building fabrics, which is inherent to the building’s cultural heritage status need to be retained. The challenge in fire safety engineering design of cultural heritage buildings is to retain these intrinsic building fabrics while also achieving a societally acceptable level of fire safety. Typically, the minimums include (1) ensuring life safety, (2) protecting neighboring properties and (3) facilitating firefighting operations. The unconventional or traditional constructions frequently manifested throughout cultural heritage buildings present some challenging considerations for designers. In place of modern non-combustible linings, such as steel, concrete and plasterboard systems, cultural heritage buildings contain exposed timber, arts, and crafts, which are combustible, and could cover an extensive portion of the walls and underside of floors. The fire performance of these combustibles is often unknown, and fire-retardant treatments which do not interfere with the cultural heritage values of the materials are also limited. Cultural heritage buildings could also contain unique geometries, which reduce the effectiveness of fire protection systems, e.g., large concealed attic spaces, steep sloped ceiling or roof, etc.

Recently, a number of high-profile cultural heritage fires on the global stage provide a timely reminder of the significance of these buildings, and also the necessity to ensure these are protected feasibly to prevent unwanted losses. In 2019, Notre-Dame de Paris suffered a fire, which destroyed the spire and ‘forest’ oak roof beams supporting the lead roof [3]. National Museum of Brazil suffered a fire in 2018, which resulted in damages to 90 % of the artifacts housed within the building, totaling 18 million items which include Ancient Egypt, Mediterranean Cultures and a number of indigenous archaeologies [4]. These fires not only damaged the buildings and contents but also caused environmental contamination, e.g., due to lead in the case of Notre-Dame de Paris, and emotional trauma to the global community. Fire Protection Engineering magazine, #92 released in Q4 of 2021 [5], presented a number of good discussions around the subject of fire safety design, fire protection, and refurbishment of cultural heritage buildings. The separate authors, Kilby, Millar, Esposito and Ivison highlighted the wide range of fire risks relating to historic buildings with mixed uses or changing use over time, which must be considered adequately in conjunction with the building itself. It is also vital for fire safety design of cultural heritage buildings to achieve a societally accepted balance between fire safety, heritage aesthetic and building functionality. The authors, particularly Millar, discussed the development of cultural heritage fire safety design through (1) gathering knowledge on the building through detailed inspections, (2) uncovering and addressing design incompatibilities via a collective design team effort, (3) application of design strategies beyond the building code minimum, and utilizing expert knowledge to manage the fire risks from design – construction – end users, including having indepth understanding of the design intent, and (4) consideration of the longevity and serviceability of the implemented fire protection systems.

A similar philosophy is also adopted when developing research involving the fire safety of cultural heritage buildings, (1) comprehend the cultural heritage significance through consultation with the stakeholders involved, (2) clearly review the fire risks and the risk tolerance in relation to the buildings, and (3) develop tailored research objectives and strategies accordingly. This short article provides some background on cultural heritage buildings unique to New Zealand (NZ), and the research opportunities to enhance cultural heritage fire safety. The aforementioned challenges posed by cultural heritage buildings including fire performance and effectiveness of fire protection systems, show the necessity to continue educating the wider public and to utilize cutting-edge research to progress the current fire safety knowledge frontier.

Past Cultural Heritage Fires in New Zealand

Cultural heritage buildings in NZ comprise English architectures, e.g., Jacobean, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian or fusion with other European architectures, and the traditional or modern Māori architectures such as found on marae. Marae are complexes of buildings and open areas that are the traditional center of Māori social life, and are ritually performative spaces that host multiple cultural and religious activities including pōwhiri (welcome ceremonies), community meetings to discuss tribal and political issues, dining, sleeping, crafts, education, and tangihanga (funeral rites) [6]. In terms of structures, the most important building is the wharenui (meeting house – literally “big house”), also known as the tipuna whare (ancestral house), a marae focal point in which most of the aforementioned activities occur. For many traditional wharenui, the building structure is representative of the body of a founding ancestor of the tribe or subtribe, and is therefore imbued with deep spiritual significance. The consumption of food is forbidden in the wharenui, and preparation and consumption of meals occurs in a separate dining hall (whare kai). The whare kai is another essential structure, as sharing of food is deemed vital to concluding ritual activities that occur within the wharenui. Many rural and urban marae, since the 19th century and through the 20th century, have incorporated buildings with English architectures. Over the last century, especially in rural areas, marae have experienced underinvestment in structural upkeep and infrastructure services [7]. Although in recent years, investment has resulted in some wharenui, whare kai and other structures to be built with traditional architectural elements, utilizing modern materials. Currently, there are approximately 800 tribal marae throughout NZ, with a mix of traditional and English architectures.

This section presents some unwanted fires suffered by NZ cultural heritage buildings in the past, which resulted in significant or irreparable property loss. Note that these are some recent examples only, and is not an exhaustive list.

Exemplar fires involving European architectures:

  • Antonio Hall [8] built between 1904 and 1909 as seen in Figure 1(a), became derelict after the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake. The building suffered two arson fires in 2019 and 2021, refer to Figure 1(b), and likely to be irreparable [9].
  • Recognized as one of world’s largest timber houses, located in Christchurch, McLean’s Mansion [10] was constructed in 1900. The unoccupied building suffered a suspicious fire in 2020 which was successfully contained and suppressed due to fire service intervention [11].
  • Unlike the two prior examples, Te Kiteroa homestead [12] in Waimate also known as ‘The Grand Ol’Lady On The Hill’ was built in 1913 and cared for throughout its life. The building was destroyed by an electrical fire in 2021.
  • Similarly, St. Andrew’s Church [13] located in Whareama, was completed around 1904. In 2021 while still actively being use for religious activities, the free-access building suffered a fire resulting in complete loss.


Figure 1. Antonio Hall. (a) Mid 1900s [8]; (b) After recent 2021 fire [9].

Exemplar fires involving traditional Māori architectures:

  • Taumata o Te Rā Marae [14] in Halcombe suffered a fire in 2011, which damaged the kitchen and dining hall of the marae [15]. It was reported that the firefighting operation also faced challenges due to limited water supply [16].
  • Mana Ariki Marae [17] with strong spiritual connection to Taumarunui community, suffered two separate fires in 2014 [18] and 2017 [19], which destroyed a few buildings on site.
  • Mōkai Marae [20] in Taupo suffered a complete loss to its dining hall during a tangi (traditional funeral rite) due to fire in 2015 [21]. Similar to the marae in Halcombe, the firefighting operation faced challenges due to lack of water supply.
  • More recently, in 2019, heritage listed Tapu Te Ranga Marae [22] located in Wellington, suffered a complete loss as a result of accidental fire, refer to Figure 2. The fire was started by ember from a brazier located 15 m away from the building [23].

Figure 2. Tapu Te Ranga Marae. (a) Before fire; (b) During fire; (c) After fire [24].

Overall, the examples provided here highlight the increased fire risks associated with derelict, frequently unoccupied or low security, free-access cultural heritage buildings. These fires also reflect the importance of timely and effective fire service intervention to limit property damage, which has been particularly detrimental to maraes located in areas with limited firefighting water resources. Lastly, some of the examples were equipped with detection systems to provide early warning for occupants, but all were lacking sprinkler protection which is capable of limiting the extent of property damage.

Opportunities for Cultural Heritage Fire Safety Research

The fire protection of NZ European architectures needs to remain sympathetic to the building’s heritage fabrics, and some modern fire protection strategies adopted globally have achieved that. Some examples include accommodating the exposed heritage timber and utilising recessed or concealed sprinkler heads across heritage feature ceiling. Similarly, for Māori architectures, sympathetic consideration of the cultural fabrics is the impetus. Knowledge about the cultural heritage significance of the local iwi (tribe) and also adjustment to modern fire protection strategies will be necessary, to achieve this objective. Both global and local challenges on cultural heritage fire safety have presented a few research opportunities to prevent and mitigate unreasonable fire losses. First of all, a strong understanding of the cultural heritage significance established through meaningful community engagement, along with literature review, survey and statistical analysis, is paramount to ensure research outcomes will benefit the cultural heritage buildings and communities. Co-creative research on seismic retrofitting of wharenui provides an example of providing methods and solutions that integrate traditional architectures and modern safety features [25]. 

Cultural heritage fabrics such as exposed timber, arts, and crafts manifest the uniqueness of the buildings but also tend to exacerbate the spread and severity of fires. Naturally, experimental investigation is needed to form a good understanding of the combustion behavior of the expected fuels and the subsequent compartment fire dynamics. Previously, Duncan et al. have conducted small- and full-scale experiments to investigate the burning behavior of Māori cultural fabrics [26]. Multi-scale experimental investigation as such could help in the development of sympathetic fire protection strategies for the cultural heritage fabrics. These strategies include fire retardant treatments or fire breaks incorporated within feature walls or ceiling to limit fire spread, or specially designed fire suppression systems to enhance life safety and owner’s property protection where firefighting water supply is scarce. The application of numerical fire models supported by these experimental findings could also be a cost-effective means of assessing the feasibility of different fire safety solutions on larger building-scale scenarios. The feasibility of integrating or retrofitting these strategies into traditional marae structures will need to be explored in co-creative, collaborative engagement with individual communities so as to not compromise the spiritual integrity of building elements. However, for new constructions, collaborative design among Māori communities, architects and engineers may present opportunities to implement state-of-the-art fire protection systems within buildings while retaining traditional architectural features.

Due to varying design objectives and differences in cultural heritage significance, future research into the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) recommender systems could streamline the design options, resulting in an enhanced design framework suited to cultural heritage buildings. A recommender system informed by architectural and engineering expertise along with culturally-informed design criteria could rank the effectiveness of different fire protection strategies, and recommend the optimal solution based on the required level of fire safety, the cultural heritage aesthetics, the building uses, the practicality of construction, and the serviceability of fire protection features. In conclusion, cultural heritage buildings are worth protecting for future generations to use and appreciate, and the research avenues highlighted here will hopefully contribute to the fire safety improvements.


[1] Pau, C. Duncan, C. Fleischmann, Performance-Based Fire Engineering Design of a Heritage Building: McDougall House Case Study, Safety 5 (2019),

[2] Elms, The systms stance, Civil Engineering and Environmental Systems (2020),

[3] Notre-Dame de Paris, Wikipedia (2022),, 6 March 2022.

[4] National Museum of Brazil, Wikipedia (2022),, 6 March 2022.

[5] Fire Protection Engineering 92 (2021), C. Jelenewicz et al. (Eds.), Society of Fire Protection Engineers.

[6] Tapsell, Marae, Te kōparapara : an introduction to the Māori world (2018), M. Reilly et al. (Eds.), Auckland University Press.

[7] The Status of Marae in 2009, Te Puni Kökiri (2012).

[8] Antonio Hall (2022),, 6 March 2022.

[9] Stuff (2021),, 6 March 2022.

[10] McLean’s Mansion, Wikipedia (2021),'s_Mansion, 7 March 2022.

[11] Stuff (2020),, 7 March 2022.

[12] Te Kiteroa (2022),, 7 March 2022.

[13] St Andrew’s, Whareama, Wairarapa Churches (2022),, 7 March 2022.

[14] Taumata o Te Rā, Māori Maps (2022),, 7 March 2022.

[15] Stuff (2011),, 7 March 2022.

[16] Newshub (2011),, 7 March 2022.

[17] Mana Ariki Marae, Wikipedia (2022),, 7 March 2022.

[18] Te Ao Māori News (2014),, 7 March 2022.

[19] Stuff (2017),, 7 March 2022.

[20] Mōkai, Māori Maps (2022),, 7 March 2022.

[21] The New Zealand Herald (2015),, 7 March 2022.

[22] Tapu Te Ranga Marae, Wikipedia (2022),, 7 March 2022.

[23] The New Zealand Herald (2019),, 7 March 2022.

[24] Stuff (2019),, 7 March 2022.

[25] Crum, D. Brown, T. Fa’aui, N. Vallis, J. M. Ingham, Seismic retrofitting of Māori wharenui in Aotearoa New Zealand, Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society A 377 (2019),

[26] R. Duncan, P. Whiting, C. A. Wade, D. Whiting, A. Henderson, Fire Protection of New Zealand’s Traditional Māori Buildings, Building Research Association of New Zealand (2004).