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:


This question is the first that professionals in charge of evaluating fire safety must ask themselves before starting their work and it does not always have an answer that will satisfy all needs. Installing fire-fighting water systems can save a building from destruction, but in some circumstances the uncontrolled activation of these systems can cause more damage than a fire would cause. An inadequate escape route (for example, a staircase that is too steep or too narrow) can compromise the exodus of people present in a building, but what to do if building an external emergency staircase would substantially damage the appearance of that building ?

There is no magic wand to solve these problems in almost any building of historical or artistic value in the world. The level of safety to which projects are now required to comply is much higher than that of buildings of a few hundred years ago. Not surprisingly, the history of architecture and of the most important cities in many countries is marked by fires that have destroyed buildings or entire urban environments.

The dimension of the base of the wall that protected the Forum Augusti from the frequent fires that affected the Suburra district (credit:


One of the possibilities that professionals have at their disposal to reflect with greater awareness on the risks to which historic buildings are subject is to simulate what would happen in the event of a fire, to better understand the vulnerabilities of buildings and to agree on intervention strategies (physical measures , plant engineering, management and use) that can minimize the risks. This evaluation philosophy is what characterizes the performance approach to fire safety.

Fire Safety Engineering (or Fire Protection Engineering) is the most powerful tool for assessing fire risk in heritage, historical or cultural buildings. Using the techniques developed within  the performance based approach to improve the  protection of cultural and historical buildings against fire, at the moment it’s the only possible way that allows to match safety needs with conservation issues. According the Wikipedia page, Fire safety Engineering is “the application of science and engineering principles to protect people, property, and their environments from the harmful and destructive effects of fire and smoke. It encompasses engineering which focuses on fire detection, suppression and mitigation and fire safety engineering which focuses on human behavior and maintaining a tenable environment for evacuation from a fire. In the United States ‘fire protection engineering’ is often used to include ‘fire safety engineering“.

The other possible way to approach the problem, the prescriptive approach, does not allow to address  the extremely various problems that safety consultants have to face in protecting from fire historic artefacts. Such buildings, actually, normally are far away from any applicable standard, in the egress routes and fire behaviour of materials design. Moreover, hardly protection plants can be installed without severe interference with the historic characteristic of the building.

Currently, there aren’t many studies about the use of Fire Safety Engineering in cultural or heritage buildings protection. Are worth to be cited the Cost C 17 Action “Fire Loss to Built Heritage”, an activity funded by the European Science Foundation which ended in 2006 and the activity of the NFPA , which has published and keep updated two important standards: 909 (Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties – Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship) and 914 (Code for Fire Protection in Historic Structures).

To date, the Cost C17 remains the most successful research action aimed at improving the understanding of the fire risk to the built Heritage. The  references listed by the Action can help to have an idea of the work done:

  1. Analysis of significant fires WP 2
  2. Bridge street fire exercise feedback. 10-04
  3. British Standards Institute November 2004, Sprinkler systems
  4. Building Bulletin 100, Designing and managing against the risk of fire in schools
  5. Building Research Establishment, Fire Suppression in Buildings using water mist, fog or similarsystems 2005 Case Studies 2005
  1. Bukowski, R. Performance based fire protection of historic structures Case Studies 2005
  2. Bulgaria List of fires from the National Fire Service of Bulgaria
  3. Bulgarian Fire Statistics
  4. Chiltern International fire case study, Fire resistance of medium rise timber frame buildings Case Studies 2005
  5. Chiltern International fire case study, Stare Fire Test Case Studies 2005
  6. Clausen, I. 11-04, Historic buildings and insurance in Norway
  7. Conrad, E. Fire detection systems October 1998 Case Studies 2005
  8. Cooper, S, Existing Technologies, the accepted abilities, reliabilities and cost
  9. Coull, M. 03-05, Fire and rescue stats user group
  10. Counter Disaster Planning In Historic Buildings
  11. Davis D 12-04, Malicious attacks on heritage Buildings
  12. Definition of cultural historic value 03-04
  13. Description of models and tools to give priority between different buildings and projects 08-04
  14. Description of risk (assessment, evaluation)analysis, consequence in theory, with statistics etc 06-04
  15. Description of the best practise for future insurance of historic buildings and relevant key questions to reach the best practice 11-04
  16. Description of the principles behind the Insurance Companies work with historic buildings today and models to estimate the insurance fee in historic buildings 11-04
  17. Directorate for Cultural Heritage, Norway Cultural Heritage Monuments and Historic buildings as value generators in a post-industrial economy
  18. Discussion of what historic value means to economy and the costs of loosing historic valuable property because of fire 04-04
  19. Documentation to make reconstruction possible 04-05
  20. Dusman A 07-04, Schultz’s hazard analysis, Italy
  21. Egardt, E 07-04, Electronic system of recording fire statistics in Sweden
  22. Egardt, E Swedish statistics from turn out reports
  23. Ekwall, M, 11-04, Incident in the Stockholm City Hall
  24. Ekwall, M, 11-04, The Katarina church in Stockholm
  25. Emercom 2002, New safety technologies
  26. Emery, S, 04-04, Fire Safety in the Wooden Town centres of Norway
  27. Emery, S, 07-04, Electronic recording system of fire statistics in the United Kingdom
  28. Emery, S, 07-04, Fire statistics for heritage buildings
  29. Evaluation of risks and special measures to take; regards to historic buildings, 06-04
  30. Example of blank risk assessment form
  31. Examples of costs for reconstruction after a fire 06-04
  32. Fernandez, 12-04, Guidelines on Structural behaviour in case of fires in historic buildings
  33. Finland Accident Investigation Report, Fire in Hotel in Kuhminen 23 December 1995 Case Studies 2005
  34. Fire Prevention Journal November 2003 various articles (Bound Separately)Case Studies 2005
  35. Fire-tech museum notes
  36. FireTech Newsletter 11-03 Fire risk evaluation to European Cultural heritage
  37. FireTech, 11-03, Fire risk evaluation
  38. Forrest, R. Strategic Fire Protection in Historic Buildings Building Conservation 2001 Case Studies 2005
  39. Friedman, L, FireTech museum notes
  40. Galea, E.R, 09-03, Analysis of the building EXODUS evacuation simulation study of Schloß Schönbrunn
  41. Hargraves, R, 2002, Cataclysm and Challenge
  42. Helseth, S, 12-04, Secretariat observations regarding definitions
  43. Heras, G, 09-04, Fire Damage of Heritage building Stones
  44. Historic Scotland, 01-03, Edinburgh old and new towns world Heritage site report
  45. Historic Scotland, 07-04, Managing fire safety in historic buildings
  46. Hood, C, The intelligent use of water
  47. Hristov, P, 07-04, Electronic recording system of fire statistics in Bulgaria
  1. Hristov, P, Approaches and Methods of Fire Risk Quantitative Evaluation for Heritage Buildings in Bulgaria
  2. IHBC, Fire at Buxton Mill Case Studies 2005
  3. Jackman, P. Building Conservation, The sleeping Policeman: The role of compartmentation in fire protection Case Studies 2005
  4. Jensen, G, 12-04, Hand held fire-extinguishing equipment
  5. Jensen, G, 12-06-05, unintended activations of sprinkler and water mist systems in heritage
  6. Jensen, G, Hypoxic Air Continuous Inerting
  7. Kaplan, M, 7th October 2003 Balancing the impact of physical interventions and of potential fire damage with the “value” and significance” of the site
  8. Kaplan, M. 09-03. Balancing the impact of physical interventions and of potential fire damage with the “value” and significance” of the site. (Detailed cost studies …from fires)
  9. Kaplan, M. Fire Protection in Religious Properties through management October 1998 Case Studies 2005
  10. Karlsen, E 06-10-04 Important fires in Norway in the last 20 years
  11. Karlsen, E 07-04, Electronic system of recording fire statistics in Norway
  12. Karlsen, E Norway Fire Statistics
  13. Keivila, K Final scientific report
  14. Kidd, S, 02, Disaster recovery and business continuity planning
  15. Kidd, S, 12-03, US Fires in historic buildings
  16. Kidd, S, 12-04, Fire risk improvement project
  17. Kidd, S, 95, Heritage under fire
  18. Kippes, W 07-04, Developing an Internet based system on European fire events
  19. Kippes, W 08-04, NFPA USA Fire Data
  20. Lenka M 04-05, Cultural heritage in Slovenia
  21. Little RF 03-67, Fire test on a standing Georgian Dwelling
  22. Llinares M 02-05, Fire in the Windsor Building, Madrid, Spain
  23. Llinares M 12-03, Cultural Heritage in Spain Report
  24. Loss Prevention Consultancy, Heritage risk assessment
  25. Loss recovery (from ethical point of view) 08-04
  26. Lund, I. IHBC, Fire damage at Marlborough high street Case Studies 2005
  27. Marchant, E, 07-04, advances in detection, extinction and suppression
  28. Marchant, E, The efficacy of water mist fire suppression systems for archive protection
  29. Marsella, S, 06-00, Performance based codes v prescriptive rules: The case of the application to fire protection of heritage in Italy
  30. Marsella, S, 12-03, Performance based codes v prescriptive rules
  31. Mattinen, M, 04-04, Gives an overview over the contents of the international conservation charters, statements of significance etc.
  32. Maxwell, I 01-03 Fires in Scottish historic buildings from
  33. Maxwell, I 04-04, Note of Research Seminar: “The Application of Water Mist in Cultural Heritage Buildings”
  34. Maxwell, I 12-02, Fire Prevention and Engineers Journal
  35. Maxwell, I, 09-02-01 Protection of Cultural Heritage Values: Fire Risk assessment for Historic Buildings
  36. Maxwell, I, 11-04, Hotel de Ville, concluding observations
  37. Maxwell, I, 12-03, Working group meeting and research seminar, Schloß Schönbrunn, Vienna
  38. Mays D 12-04, English/ Scottish Listing criteria
  39. Mileva, G, A Review of Some Problems Concerning The Estimation of the Cultural and Financial value of Historic Heritage in Bulgaria
  40. Morgan Academy case study
  41. Muskalska J 04-05, Fires in Poland
  42. Muskalska, J 06-05, Polish Fire Statistics
  43. New Zealand Fire Services Commission, Guidelines for Case Studies 2005 Identifying and Preventing Fire Risks to Heritage Buildings Case Studies 2005
  44. Nuzzolese V 11-09-04 Definition of Historic buildings in Italy
  45. Pehlivan, E, 09-04, Fire safety at the historical covered bazaars
  46. Pehlivan, E, E 09-04 Definition of Historic buildings in Turkey
  47. Pekurinen, S, 11-04, Insurance for historic buildings in Finland
  48. Position of fire safety of cultural heritage in the regulatory system in various European countries, 02-03
  49. Pressure check electric pump specification
  50. Principles behind the Insurance Companies work with historic buildings, 08-04 
  51. Principles for deciding the degree of reconstruction of an historic building 11-04
  52. Principles of deciding what should be built to replace the fire loss of authentic fabric 08-04
  53. Razza, J. Fire alarm Systems in Historic places of worship October 1998 Case Studies 2005
  54. Reivila K 06-09-04 Definition of historic buildings in Finland
  55. Reivila K 07-04, Electronic recording system of fire statistics in Finland
  56. Reivila K 11-04, Comparison of Data Categorisation of European Countries Fire Reporting Statistics
  57. Relevant methodologies for risk (assessment, evaluation) analysis, consequences and measures to take, 06-04
  58. RICS, Protecting Historic Buildings from Fire and Smoke Case Studies 2005
  59. Rohen, P September 2004, Weimar library fire
  60. Schloß Schönbrunn Meeting 07-04, Concluding Discussion
  61. Schloß Schönbrunn Meeting 07-04: UK Fire Performing Proforma, Sweden Fire Reporting Proforma, and Swedish Fire Stats 1996-2001
  62. Serious fire safety events in Italy
  63. Skagit River Journal, The Wooley Fire of 1911 Case Studies 2005
  64. SNHNFD, 12-04, Fire database
  65. Snodland Paper Mill Fire 1906 Case Studies 2005
  66. SPAB Journal 6 April 1985 “York- Up from the Ashes” Case Studies 2005
  67. Swaden, C, 06-09-04, Analysis of the building EXODUS evacuation simulation study of Schloß Schönbrunn
  68. Swaden, C, 6 September 2004, Residential sprinkler systems- potential for design freedoms
  69. Swedish National Property Board, 06-01, Instructions on fire safety in national monuments
  70. Swedish Rescue Services Agency, 12-01, Systematic prevention work
  71. Taglia, C del, Standard fires in historic buildings
  72. Taylor, A. IHBC, Fire Prevention in Historic Buildings Case Studies 2005
  73. The Colvin Trust – Stewart Kidd, Risk improvement in Historic and Heritage Buildings, Adaptive re-use, Duff House Case Study June 2003 Case Studies 2005
  74. Trada Technologies case study, Windsor Castle Roof Case Studies 2005
  75. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Fire Ratings of Archaic Materials and Assemblies Case Studies 2005
  76. United States Fire Administration, St George Hotel Complex 16 Alarm Fire August 25 1995 Case Studies 2005
  77. University of Aberdeen, Safety and Reliability Engineering Fire Hazards IV Fire containment and extinguishment Case Studies 2005
  78. University of Edinburgh School of Civil Engineering, Behaviour of steel framed structures under fire conditions June 2000 Case Studies 2005
  79. Vladimirov, V, Expression of interest in participating in COST Action C17
  80. Wainwright, I, 11-04, Ecclesiastical Insurance
  81. Watts, J. Performance Based Approaches to Protecting our Heritage Case Studies 2005
  82. Westerlund, K and Egardt, E. 06-09-04 Definition of Historic buildings in Sweden
  83. Westerlund, K, 06-04, Describe various attempts to estimate the economic value of historic buildings on the national or regional level
  84. Westerlund, K, Definition of cultural and financial value
  85. Westerlund, K, Emery, S, December 2004, Cultural and financial value 03-2005, The importance of historic value for economy 03-2004, Create contacts with insurance companies and describe to what extent historical buildings are insured?
  86. Weston, K. IHBC, When the fire is over Case Studies 2005
  87. White, F 11-03, Edinburgh Old Town Fire Report
  88. Wilson, A 11-03 Contact with member countries, listed Buildings etc.
  89. Wohltan, D, 11-04, Insurance for historic buildings
  90. World fire statistics bulletin October 2003
  91. World fire statistics bulletin October 2004
  92. Zarnic, R, 23-11-04, Consequence based approach to safeguarding cultural heritage
  93. Zhigang, L, 02-01, A review of water mist fire suppression technology

The strategy of protection of historical building against fire risk is different from almost any other type of building. In the most of case, the objective of fire protection, in fact, is preserving occupants of buildings or the their structure.  Sometimes the concern is both. In the case of fire protection of historical buildings, preservation must find solutions that are consistent with the particular needs of the building: such goal needs freedom e cannot be achieved with prescriptive approaches, which have been developed with the typical building in mind.

The most common gap of prescriptive systems, when applied to heritage buildings, in that they do not work well in unique buildings, when the possible solutions are constrained. Frequently encountered constraints include aesthetic objections to:

  • the degree of compartmentation required in the regulations;
  • the inability to meet egress requirements such as the required number of exits or maximum travel distances;
  • The frequent impossibility in installing active fire fighting systems

When these situations occur, designers usually use the equivalency provisions included in most prescriptive regulations. But such provisions normally have been studied for specific occupancy types and must be continually recalibrated as the prescriptive requirements evolve.

In this situation, performance-based regulations allow to meet conservation needs with safety standards provisions.

Explicit goals and objectives for life safety and historic preservation can be applied to performance solutions. Hazards and safety deficiencies should be identified in order to determine compliance options that satisfy safety objectives, respecting historical/aesthetical features. Solutions can be selected from traditional, prescriptive solutions or performance analysis approaches. Using such method, it’s fundamental that all parties involved in the construction understand the significant features that are to be preserved.

Other issues of paramount importance in dealing with fire safety of cultural heritage is the need for special care during:

  • work projects when the structure is particularly vulnerable. When there are temporary collections of combustibles and construction equipment as well as operations that can represent sources of ignition not normally present. Ceilings and walls may be open for repair, exposing combustible structural elements and void spaces that might allow a fire to spread throughout the structure. Existing fire protection equipment may be disabled or removed as a part of the work.
  • special events that may bring large occupant loads, consumption of alcohol that may impair these occupants, and catering or special food preparation activities that can involve additional quantities of combustibles and ignition sources. All activities at special events need to be evaluated and precautions taken to avoid threats.

One of the most urgent problems to be solved in order to address the issue of fire protection of historic buildings with the engineering approach is the difficulty of finding statistical data. In this post by Stewart Kidd, you can find some considerations that emerged from the activities carried out in the COST C17 action.

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