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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Performance based approach and fire protection of historic buildings

wooden beams inside ceiling of baroque church in Rome
wooden beams inside ceiling of baroque church in Rome

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.