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:
Continue reading “Fire Safety Engineering and Cultural Heritage Buildings”

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:

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.

Continue reading “Safety of historical wood structures. A Workshop in Rome”

Forest Fire Risks to Cultural Heritage

When it comes to assess the risks of fire to Cultural Resources buildings or artefacts, normally they are related to buildings.  In a consistently smaller number of cases, the scenario is related to a forest or a vegetation fire.

The technical literature concerned with the protection of cultural heritage from the risks of fire rarely takes this issue into account. One of the few documents that fully addresses this aspect is the Wildland Fire report in Ecosystems Effects of Fire on Cultural Resources and Archeology, published by the United States Department of Agricolture. Continue reading “Forest Fire Risks to Cultural Heritage”

The ABC Method: a risk management approach to the preservation of cultural heritage

Cover of the ABC Method document. (Credits: ICCROM website)

Risks to cultural heritage vary from catastrophic events (such as earthquakes,  floods,  etc) to gradual processes (such as chemical, physical, or biological degradation). The result is loss of value to the heritage. Sometimes, the risk does not involve any type of material damage to the heritage asset, but rather the loss of information about it, or the inability to access heritage items. So, heritage managers need to understand these risks well so as to make good decisions about protection of the heritage (for future generations) while also providing access for the current generation. ICCROM (Intergovernamental Organisation devoted to protect Cultural Heritage)  and the Canadian Conservation Institute have published the “The ABC Method: a risk management approach to the preservation of cultural  heritage”.

The handbookl is based on the five steps pf the management cycle (Establish the context,  identify risks, analyze risks, evaluate risks, treat risks)  and, for each step, three or more tasks are identified, whose complete list

1. Establish the context

  • Task 1: Consult with decision makers. Define the scope, goals and criteria.
  • Task 2: Collect and understand the relevant information.
  • Task 3: Build the value pie.

2. Identify risks

  • Task 1: Assemble the appropriate tools and strategies.
  • Task 2: Survey the heritage asset and make a photographic record.
  • Task 3: Identify specific risks, name them, and write their summary sentences.

3. Analyze risks

  • Task 1: Quantify each specific risk.
  • Task 2: Split or combine specific risks, as needed.
  • Task 3: Review and refine the analyses.

4. Evaluate risks

  • Task 1: Compare risks to each other, to criteria, to expectations.
  • Task 2: Evaluate the sensitivity of prioritization to changes in the value pie.
  • Task 3: Evaluate uncertainty, constraints, opportunities.

5. Treat risks

  • Task 1: Identify risk treatment options.
  • Task 2: Quantify risk reduction options.
  • Task 3: Evaluate risk reduction options.
  • Task 4: Plan and implement selected options.

The document is an important study aimed at helping cultural heritage managers and risk assessment professionals in starting the process that limits damages to buildings and artefacts. The document is freely downloadable from the ICCROM website or from the Canadian Conservation Institute website.

Historic Buildings Fire Risk Assessment Tools

Assessing fire risk in historic or heritage buildings is a defying task for every fire safety professional, as well as for every architect concerned with the problems of updating such buildings to new uses. Normally, fire risk assessment is carried out on the basis of check of compliance to the relevant fire safety standards. New office buildings, shops, schools, museums and many other occupancies are covered by codes in the most of countries. Thus, assessing the risk is a rather easy job.
In other cases, when standards are not available, guidelines or general criteria give the necessary hints to develop a good level fire risk assessment. But, when the building to be assessed has an historical value, the problems which arise do not always find a satisfying answer in the general principles or codes of fire protection. How to deal an important museums which is supposed to be extremely crowded if stairs to not meet fire standards? Which alarm system fits complex structure wooden roof? How to fight fire when water cannot be easily provided?
In order to give adequate answers to questions like

1Assessing fire risk in historic or heritage buildings is a defying task for every fire safety professional, as well as for every architect concerned with the problems of updating such buildings to new uses. In general, fire risk assessment in the case of a normal building is carried out on checking the compliance of the building to the relevant fire safety standards. New office buildings, shops, schools, museums and many other occupancies are covered by codes in the most of countries. Thus, assessing the risk is a rather easy job.

In other cases, when standards are not available, guidelines or general criteria give the necessary hints to develop a good level fire risk assessment. But, when the building to be assessed has an historical value, the problems which arise do not always find a satisfying answer in the general principles or codes of fire protection.

How to deal an important museums which is supposed to be extremely crowded if stairs to not meet fire standards? Which alarm system fits complex structure wooden roof? How to fight fire when water cannot be easily provided?

In order to give adequate answers to such questions, there are few tools which actually allow to assess fire risk and develop a correct protection strategy. One of the most interesting documents concerning the problem is the NPFA 914 Standard (Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures), which addresses fundamental arguments as:

  • security
  • prescriptive and performance-based options
  • management
  • addition, alteration and rehabilitation works, and fire precautions during construction, repair and alteration works
  • special events
  • inspection, testing and maintenance
  • survey forms for conducting arson vulnerability assessments
  • guidance on the implementation of operational controls
  • Provisions for the use of arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) to protect electrical circuits
  • wildfire protection criteria
  • criteria for determining contractor qualifications
  • inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements for premises security systems
  • criteria for special event protection and security

Another tool available, quoted also in the NFPA 914 code but not dealt as a single topic by specific standards, is the performance-based approach, which is developed through the fire safety engineering instruments. Such approach implies that the objectives of the risk analysis are shared among the stakeholders and, consequently, that fire safety scenarios are selected using the expert judgement and verified through simulations of fire. The most significant part of such analysis is the scenario selection, since the results will show the adequacy or non adequacy of fire safety strategy respect to the selected fires.

At the moment, the main obstacle to be removed in using  fire safety engineering to cultural and historical building fire safety is a relative lack of data about fire behavior of historical material. Few data are available about fire damages or extinguishing agents damages to i.e. old canvas or papers (actually, historic or archaic materials cover a very wide range, from metal to almost every organic material object). An  extensive research in such field needs to be developed. An important step towards such goal has been recently undertook by the Fire Research Foundation in order to collect such kind of data.

Do Risk Index Methods Fit to Historical Buildings?

Rome's Anfiteatro di Marcello means of egress
Rome's Anfiteatro di Marcello means of egress

Assessing fire risks in historical buildings may be a complex task. Normally, means of egress, structural fire resistance, decorations and other fire related aspects of historical building present  important differences from what prescriptive rules ask. So, sometimes the only option to evaluate a fire safety project remains the use of the performance based approach. Such approach, on the other hand, cannot be used in a relaxed way, since there’s still a huge need of data about fire behavior of archaic materials and fire causes. Moreover, performance based approach implies the need of  performing fire simulations in complex environments. As a consequence, normally the fire engineering assessment will hardly be performed in the needed comprehensive manner.

A possible shortcut to avoid wasting time assessments (as performance based can frequently be), which can be always subject to criticism due the complexity of the problem, has been hypothesized in using methods based on risk indexes. Such methods are not new and are based on the attribution of values to parameters used to help  in the assessment. A severe lack of transparency in such methods can be found in the difficulty found in identifying objective paths to attribute values to parameters.

Given such a situation, do Fire Risk Index Methods fit to the actual needs of cultural heritage safety?

We welcome any comment about this argument.

A small example of fire risk assessment in a heritage building

historic_windowDeveloping a fire risk assessment about a cultural heritage building it is not a common task even if, in many cases, the problems aren’t so different from ordinary buildings.

One of the most frequent issue to be considered during the assessment concerns the problem of matching fire safety rules with the special limits which the fabric of the building and its architectural features pose. For example, steep stairs or narrow doors cannot be modified in an historic building.

Sometimes, also windows cannot be involved in a upgrading project, so also ventilation issues have to be solved with special solutions, since creating holes in historical walls cannot always be considered as a possible solution. An example of fire risk assessment can consider the case of an archive room (for example, in a library) which cannot be provided with ventilation openings asked by many fire standards in normal libraries in order to let fire smokes flow outside the archives. Continue reading “A small example of fire risk assessment in a heritage building”

Risk of closure for Museum due to Lack of Fire Protection

Maryport Maritime Museum is likely to close following the discovery of a fire risk. Allerdale council’s building control team says the fire escape route is unusable because of access restrictions to the rear of the building, and that a corridor would have to be built between the ground floor stairs and the front door.

The setback was announced less than two months before the voluntary Maritime Heritage Group was due to take over the museum from Maryport Festivals.

The risk was discovered during Allerdale council’s £22,000 renovation of the building in October. But the heritage group claims it is an excuse to force closure of the building, saying that the council, which is pulling funding from the museum to save money, was never really behind it.

Group spokesman Joe Kewin said: “How can Allerdale spend in excess of £20,000 to renovate the museum, continue to ask us to upgrade our business plan and then, at the 11th hour, tell us that the museum can’t open because of a fire risk?

“Surely this was considered by architects and surveyors when they spent a considerable amount of public money”

An Allerdale council spokesman said: “The improvement works needed to be carried out to keep the building in good order. The findings of the fire risk are not an excuse but a legal requirement.”

Article first published by at 11:26, Friday, 12 February 201 by

Last updated at 20:03, Thursday, 01 April 2010

Maryport Maritime Museum has been saved from closure.

Allerdale council, which owns the building, has struck a deal for the Maryport Maritime Heritage Group to take over the running of the museum from Maryport Festivals Ltd.

Joe Kewin, spokesman for the Maryport Maritime Heritage Group, said: “We are delighted that Allerdale Borough Council has offered us the Maritime Museum under licence with their full support. We are most grateful for the support shown by the people of Maryport.

“We now need to organise the necessary administrative details such as insurances and working procedures before we can formally run the museum, so we anticipate opening around the end of May.

“This means that the museum will temporarily close for two months but people can be safe in the knowledge that when it re-opens it will be in the hands of local enthusiasts who have the funds to ensure it gets off to a good start.”

The Maritime Heritage Group will take care of the museum and its collection on an initial three-month licence with the intention to renew it on a yearly basis.

First published at 11:30, Thursday, 01 April 2010
Published by

Cutty Sark Fire: vacuum cleaner blamed

1On the morning of 21 May 2007 on the river Thames, in Greenwich (London, UK), the historical ship Cutty Sark, which had been closed and partly dismantled for conservation work, caught fire, and burned for several hours. The damage was extensive, with most of the wooden structure in the centre having been lost.

At least half of the “fabric” (timbers, etc) of the ship had not been on site as it had been removed during the preservation work. The trust was most worried about the state of iron framework to which the fabric was attached.

The fire was reported just before 5am on May 21. At its fiercest, the blaze inside the ship reached temperatures of 1,100 degrees centigrade. The report found that on the night, the security guards who should have been checking it were considering leaving work early and had actually written a false log up to 7am, which stated that ‚ “all is in order”.

When interviewed by police they gave ‚”vague and inconsistent accounts”. They were immediately dismissed. Det Chf Insp Dave Garwood said: ‚”Had they patrolled properly that night we believe the effects of the fire could have been prevented. They did not do the job they were paid to do.”

There were no also sprinklers on the ship, as they had been removed while it was being repaired, and no fire alarm went off. The investigation has found no evidence that the ship was subjected to an arson attack. It is the view of the inquiry that the cause was accidental. Having considered all the information available, it is believed that the most likely cause of the fire was the failure of an industrial vacuum cleaner that had inadvertently been left switched on over the weekend of the 19-20 May 2007.

The detective said that they have contacted the health and safety executive citing concerns about the industrial vacuum cleaner. It emerged that workers had left the vacuum on over night before and that in October 2006 the machine had to be sent back for repair to its manufacturers over safety fears. The construction management company in charge of the site, now faces questions about whether end-of-day checks were carried out correctly.

The fire burned through each of the ship’s three decks, destroying all the building work structures and tools onboard.

The damage added ¬£10 million to the cost of an ongoing conservation project, bringing the total to ¬£35 million. But the damage could have been far worse; much of the ship had already been removed from the site.

Fire Risk and Restoration works: 6 years of Fire Data in Venice

1The problem of restoration-rehabilitation sites fires and their consequent severe damages to the historic-artistic heritage seems to not receive the due attention yet. There is probably a lack of adequate information, which would allow such heavy risk emerge and enable to establish the necessary landmark upon which the consequent initiatives could be organized.

The contribution of Mr Stefano Zanut (Italian Firefighters Corps), which is a part of a research carried out by Venice University Institute of Architecture (I.U.A.V. – Istituto Universitario di Arhitettura di Venezia), aims to begin filling up that gap through the data analysis provided by the Firefighters Corps operating in Venice, where, because of building fabric typology existing there, every of its building sites can be identified as “restoration site” of an heritage building.

The paper has been presented during the international meeting Cultural Heritage and Fire Protection Issue –  Siena, 23rd May, 2008: zanut_110_118

Scottish Historic Buildings national Fire database – Risk evaluation

Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-02-47

In an attempt to evaluate and reduce the different level of risk in heritage building, in Scotland, a unique approach under the project title of the Scottish Historic Buildings National Fire Database (SHBNFD) was developed. The database provided a different kind of insight and approach to historic buildings at risk.

The SHBNFD project is an ongoing partnership between Historic Scotland and the eight Scottish Fire and Rescue Services. Initially covering the 3,500 Category A Listed Buildings across the country, the project’s overall aims are:

• to improve the effectiveness of fire-fighting operations in historic buildings by making available relevant information in a format suitable for use by fire crews attending an incident at these properties;

• to facilitate the improved reporting and gathering of statistics on fires in Scottish historic buildings

• to inform Historic Scotland’s Technical Conservation, Research and Education Group’s future research programme from the feedback material

The database has been developed as a ‘living document and provides an exchange of information between Historic Scotland (who hold reference details on listed buildings), the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS) –located with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (who hold a survey, drawing and photographic archive of sites and buildings) – and the eight Scottish Fire and Rescue Services (who hold fire inspection information on buildings). Combining all of this material for each of the listed sites provides a unique insight into the location, quality and relevance for fire fighting crews.

Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-03-20Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-03-44Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-04-21

The output from the database is an amalgam of historic information from the NMRS and other archives. This material is initially gathered by a historic buildings researcher, and then verified and expanded on by any material gathered on site by a seconded fire officer from each of the eight Scottish Fire and Rescue Services, following a related series of site visits. The initial phase of the project aims to incorporate each of the c3,500 Scottish Category A listed properties in the database.

The type of collated information includes architectural descriptions, photographs, plans, access routes and details of water supplies. In addition, priority areas within a property that are of highest historic significance are identified, as are ways in which a building’s structure may adversely affect fire-fighting operations.

The following illustrations are copy “screen shots” of the type of data resulting from the amalgamation of information:-

Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-05-28

Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-05-44Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-06-07Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-06-26Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-06-47Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-07-02Istantanea 2009-11-30 18-07-26

An immediate benefit of the database is the improved awareness of the location, significance and importance of historic buildings within the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service areas.

The longer-term benefit of the project will be in helping to mitigate the devastating effects that fire can and does have on Scotland’s built heritage. Today, the majority of the country’s Category A listed buildings had been included across the eight Fire andRescue Service rural areas and in the smaller towns.

Agreement was also reached on how to extend the exercise to include the high proportion of Category A listed buildings that exist within the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Scottish Historic Buildings National Fire Database has been well received as a valuable example of collaboration between cultural heritage professionals and the fire and rescue authorities.

Used together with relevant statistics on actual fires, the database is considered to present a very effective means of increasing future fire safety in historic buildings.

As a result, its recognised value, potential for a much wider application, and clear operational benefits for fire-fighters has been acknowledged. It was also considered that the project approach could be adopted by other countries where similar, or related, datasets of information exist and could have the potential to be integrated.

Excerpt from COST C17 final report – Author :  Mike Coull

Water mist for Protection of Heritage – Cost C17 Final report

In the final Report of the Cost c17 Action different aspects of fire protection of Cultural Heritage buildings have been addressed, as the water mist for fire protection, which at the time was a relatively new technology with specific advantages to the built heritage.

The standard design and manufacturing processes do not currently address heritage applications, but performance-based codes are favourable for introducing new water mist systems. This report establishes the current level of experience, and presents basic information about water mist for the heritage community. The challenges, implications and perspectives of the technology are outlined in order to ensure the best protection of European heritage. A guide on how to accept or approve mist systems in heritage properties is given.

Water mist application is the most subtle method of water extinguishing of fires. It provides a safe and practical environment for rescue work, it protects visitors and staff, and it incurs minimal secondary damage in valid or unintentional activations and substantially removes harmful particles from smoke.

Istantanea 2009-11-06 19-35-05

Continue reading “Water mist for Protection of Heritage – Cost C17 Final report”

Impacts of Fire on Stone-Built Heritage

Spalling Fire is one of the major threat to stone-built cultural heritage and this    paper is a review of the existing research into fire damage on building  stone. From early research based on anecdotal evidence of macroscopic  observations, scientists have moved on to develop various techniques  for approaching the investigation of fire damage to stone (high-    temperature heating in ovens, lasers, real flame tests), different aspects    of the damage that fire does have been learned from each, developing    understanding of how microscopic changes affect the whole.

This paper, published on the Journal of Architectural Conservation seeks to highlight the need for a greater awareness of the threat that fire poses (and the need to take precautionary measures in the form of fire-suppression systems), of the immediate effects, and of the long-term management issues of natural stone structures which have experienced fire.


Evaluating Physical Interventions as a Function of Hazard and Risk

Because historic structures vary by condition, extent of surviving historic fabric, past and proposed use and other factors, no universal means exists to evaluate inherent fire safety or the impact of potential improvements. Further, buildings have different roles in the ongoing operations of their institutions, ranging from organisations where exhibition of the building is a primary purpose, to those where the primary value is associated with the ability to house the functions required of that organization, eg schools or commercial ventures. Decisions regarding physical interventions should be appropriate to recognised hazards, which may be identified by a building survey or by review of relevant statistics.

foto 3.4

Higher risk hazard occupancies such as residential uses, or higher hazard     operations such as those using flammable materials, warrant higher levels  of intervention than occupancies presenting minimal risk. Each building  warrants an assessment of its unique hazards, as identified.

Fire risk assessments are tools for analysing site-specific hazards, and       ultimately selecting fire safety interventions that will satisfy an    organisationÕs established objectives. For historic buildings, fire risk  assessments consider the hazards in the context of the ability to undertake  architectural improvements, or to install technological systems in a manner    that has an acceptable physical and visual impact, and the approaches  established by building regulations or permitted alternatives.

Scottish Historic Buildings National Fire Database. Annual Report 2008-2009


The Minute of Agreement between Historic  Scotland and the Scottish Fire and  Rescue  Services  for the development of The Scottish Historic  Buildings National  Fire Database (SHBNFD)  continues to provide the structure to enable  Scotland to  remain a world leader in the  protection of the built heritage from the  devastating  effects of fire.

Mike Coull of Grampian Fire and Rescue Service  continues to serve in the role  of Heritage Co-  ordinator for the Scottish Fire Services. This post is  considered  crucial in not only delivering the key objectives set out in the Minute of  Agreement, but also to enable further research developing strategies with the Fire S ervice that will contribute to the protection of the built heritage.

The current Minute of Agreement was signed in October 2007 and sets out a wider set of outcomes to reflect the fact that the SHBNFD is much more than a database, it is a project setting out objectives driving forward the protection of the built heritage. To meet those objectives it was vital to ensure effective partnership working, through this it has been possible to establish protocols with each of the eight Scottish fire and rescue services for the exchange of information on Category B-listed buildings.

This Annual Summary Report aims to demonstrate that significant progress has been made in many of the outcomes identified within the Minute of Agreement over the past twelve months. In addition to the agreed outcomes, two significant tasks have been undertaken; a major International conference on ‘Fire Protection of the Built Heritage’ was held at Elphinstone Hall, Aberdeen on 5th May 2009 and a research project involving a series of fire tests on historic doors. Further details of these two initiatives are included within this report.


Fire is a constant threat to cultural heritage

Fire has always been a threat to cultural historic valuable buildings and surroundings.

The level of loss is unacceptable, yet most of us instinctively believe that this will not happen to us and, consequently we make, at best, half-hearted attempts to deal with the issue. It is, quite simply, too difficult for many to imagine how easily an accident can happen, and the magnitude of the resulting damage, even when we succeed in preventing the fire from spreading.

Most property owners believe that as long as they comply with current legislation, their buildings will be sufficiently protected. But this is not the case. The primary aim of most current legislation is to save life, not to save buildings. That said, emerging new laws are starting to broaden their remit and improve the standards to some degree. Continue reading “Fire is a constant threat to cultural heritage”