Fire Threat to Stones of Historic and Cultural Heritage Buildings

Many historic buildings are made with stone structures. In addition to the various benefits that this type of material, which is diversified by composition, aggregation and geometry according to historical periods and geographical areas, it must be remembered that exposure to fire constitutes in most cases an important vulnerability. Even recently, several cases of fire have highlighted the importance of designing from fire, in buildings belonging to the cultural heritage, building elements to which adequate attention is not always paid.

Plan and section of the Guarini Chapel in Turin, where the Holy Shroud is kept. The Chapel has been severely damaged by the fire on April 11, 1997.
Plan and section of the Guarini Chapel in Turin, where the Holy Shroud is kept. The Chapel has been severely damaged by the fire on April 11, 1997. Two thirds of its marble structural stones were damaged by the heat. he complex structure of the dome of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, severely damaged by the fire of 1997, that was rebuilt using stones taken from a quarry opened for the occasion. The opening of the new quarry was due to the need to replace the numerous stone elements destroyed by the effects of the fire or no longer able to perform their load-bearing function. (image from Wikipedia

The case of the fire that seriously damaged the chapel that housed the Holy Shroud in Turin, on April 11, 1997, can be considered iconic in this regard. For its restoration it was necessary to open the quarry near the place from which at the time the stone material with which the supporting structures had been made had been extracted (see reference, page 25) . Among other things, the individual blocks had been designed and installed with techniques of which the memory had been lost and which forced the restorers to a specific study.

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Results of H2020 STORM Project in the Assessment of Damage to Cultural Heritage Buildings Following Seismic Events

The training of the Italian National Fire Brigade (CNVVF) staff has accompanied the evolution of operational needs also in the specific sector of courses aimed at personnel involved in building safety scenarios. In the courses of the CNVVF there is a one-week module which provides the necessary skills to build the temporary works foreseen by the STOP manual. Image: CNVVF.

It is worldwide known that the restoration of Notre Dame, severely damaged by a massive fire on 15 April 2019 will be supported by the wealth of data acquired few years before, in order to release the Ubisoft’s ‘Assassin’s Creed: Unity. This fortuitous case highlights an aspect that could become critical in the conservation of works of art, starting with buildings and monuments. The meticulous scanning, with a precision of not less than 5 mm, has made evident to the public an aspect already known to the experts: the reconstruction or restoration of assets damaged by time, war events and malicious or negligent actions they can be potentially helped if the goods themselves have been documented with laser scanning or photogrammetry techniques. The same consideration can be applied to the emergency assessments on the damage and on the level of risk of collapse that, for example after an earthquake, the first responders must perform to allow the rescue of people, the recovery of assets and the safety of non-collapsed structures.

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Fire Safety Engineering and Cultural Heritage Buildings

Fire prevention is a discipline that relies in most cases on the use of building elements or standardized solutions. The verification of safety with respect to the risk of fire, therefore, normally starts from the control of parameters such as the width of the escape routes, the characteristics of fire resistance of the structures and the characteristics of the ignition behavior of the covering and furniture materials.  If a project lacks one or more of these aspects, it is modified by adding or changing elements. But what to do when the building has already been built and, above all, it cannot be modified because its construction elements, its visual impact and its history do not allow it to be modified without society accepting these changes?

The image shows the powerful wall behind the remains of the Augustus Forum in Rome was designed to protect the area of the monuments of ancient Rome from the frequent fires that spread in the city and which, in 64 AD. they destroyed large parts of the city. The history of buildings and cities has been marked by fires for centuries and thousands of years. Current safety standards are significantly higher than previous ones, but their application is frequently incompatible with the protection of historic buildings.
The powerful (meters thick) wall behind the remains of the Augustus Forum in Rome was designed to protect the area of the monuments of ancient Rome from the frequent fires that spread in the city from the timber houses of the Suburra district. A fire that started in another district, in 64 AD. destroyed large parts of the city. The history of buildings and cities has been marked by fires for centuries and thousands of years. Current safety standards are significantly higher than previous ones, but their application is frequently incompatible with the protection of historic buildings. (Image: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foro_di_Augusto)
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Monitoring and Maintenance of Archaeological Sites: the Conference Proceedings

Historic buildings are by their nature subject to the degradation that time and atmospheric agents entail. To limit the damage that degradation causes to heritage artefacts, the first requirement is the periodic or, better, continuous control of their state of conservation. The technologies available for this purpose are constantly evolving.

Cover of the proceedings of the conference “Manutenzione e monitoraggio delle aree archeologiche”(Monitoring and Maintenance of Archaeological Sites) held in Rome on 20th and 21st March, 2019
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Nantes Gothic Cathedral Fire

On July 18th, 2020, a fire has damaged the St Peter and St Paul Gothic Cathedral in Nantes. The fire appeared to be malicious in nature, since three triggers appear to have been found. The most significant damage was suffered by the organ, from the seventeenth century and the 16th century rose window.

Image showing the inside the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul after the 18th July 2020 fire- Image: Department of Fire and Rescue SDIS 44

The firefighters intervened in force and prevented the fire from spreading to the rest of the building. Few day after the fire a volunteer had been detained by the police and questioned about alleged inconsistencies in his schedule, but was released without charge the following day. He was rearrested, indicted, and detained in pre-trial custody on July 25.

Image showing the organo of St Peter and St Paul destroyed by the 18th July 2020 fire– Image: Department of Fire and Rescue SDIS 44

Notre Dame Fire: what we know about

The 15 April 2019 Notre Dame Cathedral fire is an iconic event and deserves to be studied appropriately. In the following text will be presented some considerations based on the information available on the internet.

Following at least 30 years of tragic fires that have destroyed several important cultural resources all over the world, such an important renovation site should have been followed with the utmost care. That does not mean that fire could not start but that a different outcome could have been reasonably expected if a fire happened. So, in order to better understand what really happened and, more important, why it happened (the site does not have access to direct information), in the following sections, articles and posts containing information and news about the fire will be quoted, together with the available information about the context, and the fire extinguishing operations carried out by the Paris Fire Brigade.

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Earthquakes and Cultural Heritage: the STOP Vademecum to help first responders limiting damages to buildings

Earthquakes pose a big threat to cultural and heritage buildings. Normally, historic buildings are more vulnerable to seismic actions than ordinary ones. So, also the artifacts that such buildings normally protect are subject to damages, due to the debris and, sometimes, to fires ignited by earthquakes.

Cover of the the STOP Vademecum published by the CNVVF (Italian National Fire and Rescue Services)
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PROMEDHE EU Project – Protecting Cultural Heritage across Borders


Cultural heritage is, by its nature, exposed to various and serious risks. The development of technologies and procedures that make it possible to improve the first aid and damage limitation activities must be constantly followed to update the techniques to the evolution of risks and expectations of the community.
In this context, international cooperation is gaining increasing importance. The ability to improve operational efficiency and effectiveness, in fact, largely benefits from the comparison between different experiences. Furthermore, in cases where catastrophic events hit entire regions, the contribution of teams from countries other than the one affected by the emergency can prove essential for saving cultural heritage.

To keep a channel of research and cooperation open, the European Commission therefore finances projects aimed at exchanging experiences between countries interested in securing cultural heritage in emergencies through funding from DG ECHO (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations).

the picture shows a phase of the final exercise of the EU Promhede project
Promedhex 2018 Exercise. Assessment team working in the scenario of simulated earthquake damages inside a church.

Promedhe has been one of these projects. The project’s consortium included the Italian Civil Protection Department (DPC) as Coordinator, the Cyprus Civil Defence (CCD), the Palestinan Civil Defence (PCD), the National Emergency Management Agency of Israel (NEMA), the Jordan Civil Defence (JCD) and

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ICOMOS 2003 Charter on Restoration and Safety of Cultural Heritage. Fire Safety approach aspects to Historical Buildings and Emergency Management?

ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), is a global non-governmental organization associated with UNESCO dedicated to the conservation of the world’s monuments and sites. One of its most active areas of interest is, then, the conservation and restoration of sites and monuments. The list of documents concerning such commitment has been published in 1998:

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Safety of historical wood structures. A Workshop in Rome

The Church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami (Rome). The wooden roof collapsed roof on August 30th, 2018. Causes are still under investigation. Credits: www.vigilfuoco.it

On August 30th, 2019, a large portion of the wooden roof Church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami suddenly collapsed, damaging the interior and some of the paintings and artefacts preserved inside. The event, happened in the most historical part of Rome, has interested a sixteenth century building, whose construction had been funded by the Corporation of the Carpenters.

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How Climate Change will affect Museums: a book about Indoor Risks

Managing Indoor Climate Risks in Museums – Bart Ankersmit • Marc H.L. Stappers – Springer

Climate change, presumably, will affect the way buildings will be designed and managed. Also museums are challenged by such risk and a new kind of approach needs to be studied.

Among the wealth of websites and papers that the internet web allows to read about the climate change issue, Managing Indoor Climate Risks in Museums has the gift of explaining the big picture and, at the same time, giving practical tips to the many professionals that need to be supported in studying and applying real-world solution to a new problem.

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STORM Academy 2019: a Course on Cultural Heritage Protection and Climate Change

In three weeks, between January and February 2019, the EU financed STORM (Safeguarding Cultural Heritage through Technical and Organisational Resources Management) project has organised the STORM Academy 2019. The lessons will be held in Rome – National Fire Academy (I.S.A.) and in Viterbo (Tuscia University) by teachers selected among of the partners of the project.

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The European Forum for Distaster Risk Reduction addresses Cultural Heritage: Resilience and Risk Reduction

The European Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction (EFDRR) forms the regional platform structure of Europe of the UNISDR, the U.N.  Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.  The 2018 meeting, of the Forum has been held in Rome on November 21-23.

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CURE: an UNESCO – World Bank Group Position Paper on Cultural Heritage and Reconstruction

CURE (Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery) is a position paper published in 2018 by UNESCO and the  World Bank Group that offers, according the foreword (Mr Enrico Ottone and Mr Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez), “a framework on Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery and operational guidance for policymakers and practitioners for the planning, financing, and implementation phases of post-crisis interventions for city reconstruction and recovery“. Continue reading “CURE: an UNESCO – World Bank Group Position Paper on Cultural Heritage and Reconstruction”

Europe is ready for climate impact. The EU Commission evaluates its strategy, but what about Cultural Heritage protection?

Europe is ready for climate impacts: Commission evaluates its strategy. From: https://ec.europa.eu/clima/

On November 12th, 2018, the European Commission has posted on its website some information about  a report (Europe is ready for climate impacts: Commission evaluates its strategy) on lessons learned and reflections on improvements for future action with regard to the impacts of climate change on economic sectors of EU regions. Continue reading “Europe is ready for climate impact. The EU Commission evaluates its strategy, but what about Cultural Heritage protection?”

First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis – a double ICCROM publication

Cover of the ICCROM Toolkit “FIRST AID TO CULTURAL HERITAGE IN TIMES OF CRISIS”

On October 2018 ICCROM (the intergovernamental organization on International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) has published a couple of documents about “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in times of crisis”:  a 176 pages pdf handbook and a 104 pages pdf toolkit. Continue reading “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis – a double ICCROM publication”

Second Fire almost Destroys the Glasgow School of Art

Fire blazes through the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building on 16 June 2018. ‘The heart of Glasgow’s Mackintosh legacy has been ripped away.’ Photograph: Scottish Fire Service Handout/EPA (theguardian.com)

A ferocious fire has devastated – probably destroying the 50 percent irreparably – the School of Art, a masterpiece by the Scottish architect Rennie Mackintosh. The building was famous because, together with works by Victor Horta, Henry Van de Velde, Adolf Loos and the American Louis Sullivan, represented a peak of that style that marked the passage from nineteenth-century eclecticism to modernity, functionalism and even twentieth century rationalism. Continue reading “Second Fire almost Destroys the Glasgow School of Art”

3D Scanning and Emergency Management of Cultural Heritage Buildings after Earthquakes: the St. Francis of Assisi Integrated System

3D scanning of the three levels of the St. Francis of Assisi Basilica (Assisi, Italy) -courtesy of Prof.  Fabio Garzia – La Sapienza University, Rome (Italy).

One of the main problems of emergency management in case of damage reported by historic buildings after an earthquake is represented by immediate damage assessment. In fact, nowadays it is not possible to use techniques other than the personal evaluation carried out by first responders.

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Emergency Evacuation of Heritage Collections: an ICCROM-UNESCO handbook

Emergency Evacuation of Heritage Collections (ICCROM-UNESCO) – Handbook cover.

Protecting Cultural Heritage is  mainly aimed at avoiding that any kind of  hazard could pose an excessive  risk to the objects that must be preserved. There are conditions, nonetheless, that oblige to evacuate the artefacts, since the preventive measures cannot be anymore effective.  So, in specific situations, museums and their staff may  go through challenging times due both to natural disasters and climate change.

In the case of museums, when they  are threatened for their role in protecting and valorizing precious witnesses of the past and human creativity, their intrinsic value for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding  must be protected and supported.

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Vegetation Fire and Cultural Heritage Buildings: the Paul Getty Museum Case Study

 

On December 5th, 2017, a large bush fire in California has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings. According the media no injuries or structural damage have been reported, although the museum has been threatened and closed to the public on Wednesday 5th.

Flames endangers the I 405 by the Getty Center on Dec. 5th – Credits: Melissa Castro

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The oldest fire detection system ever? The case of St. Paul outside the Wall Basilica in Rome

St. Paul outside the Walls fire – Rome July 15th, 1823
(from: Archivio di San Paolo Basilica – Rome)

In the night of July 15th, 1823, a fire destroyed a large part of the Papal Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls in Rome. In the following years reconstruction works, particularly interesting  for the historical evolution of fire safety measures, began. In particular, the fire protection system adopted seems to be the first case of automatic detection and alarm system ever designed in the world. Continue reading “The oldest fire detection system ever? The case of St. Paul outside the Wall Basilica in Rome”