BCD 2019

146 T H E B U I L D I N G C O N S E R VAT I O N D I R E C T O R Y 2 0 1 9 C AT H E D R A L C O MM U N I C AT I O N S SPRINKLER SYSTEMS Water-based fire suppression STEVE EMERY O WNERS AND occupiers of listed buildings are encouraged by heritage organisations to improve their fire protection and fire prevention measures to reduce the number and severity of accidental fires that have destroyed some of our best loved historic buildings over the years. In some situations the most effective form of protection may be an automatic suppression system delivering water via sprinkler heads which are activated by the heat of a fire. However, the provision of suppression systems in heritage buildings is an emotive subject, with enthusiasts calling for all heritage buildings to be fitted with sprinklers, and with opponents horrified about introducing a flood risk. There may be a large choice of fire safety solutions available to improve the ‘fire performance’ of a building, which is how it will behave when it catches fire. When making decisions, the following questions should be considered: • What factors pose the biggest threats to the building when it is involved in fire? • Can these threats be reduced to an acceptable level that does not involve any upgrading, such as reducing the fire load, or changing to a lower risk activity? • If improvements are necessary, are they designed to minimise or avoid harm to the things which make the historic building special? • Will the improvements be effective? For instance, a fire alarm system not linked to an alarm receiving centre will not provide any protection when the building is unoccupied. • Will the improvements be affordable and if not is there a more cost effective alternative? • Will any improvements, particularly passive measures such as upgrading the fire compartments be robust enough to withstand the passage of time as well as an attack by fire? • Is the level of proposed improvements commensurate with the risk? For instance, the fire performance of a brick- built railway arch will be far better than a five-storey wooden mill. The railway arch may require just the provision of a fire extinguisher, while the mill may benefit from the installation of an automatic fire suppression system. AUTOMATIC SUPPRESSION SYSTEMS The fitting of automatic fire suppression systems such as sprinklers is not a new solution and the oldest fire sprinkler system in the world is believed to be one in the Grade I listed Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London. Dating back to 1812, it is itself of great historic significance in the development of fire protection systems, which over the years have evolved to encompass high and low pressure water mist systems. There will sometimes be advantages to using a fire suppression system as part of a fire engineering solution, to avoid other fire protection measures which may be more damaging to the things which make the historic building special. Doors, for example, can provide an enhanced degree of fire protection if kept cool by being sprayed with water. Suitably located sprinkler heads can thus assist in allowing original fittings to be left in place, and the maintenance of the original fabric of a building. A sprinkler system can also compensate for the inadequacies of the building structure to resist fire. In some cases the installation of sprinklers can be a critical The fire at the Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter in 2016 – one of several disasters over the past few years to highlight the need for more effective systems of fire protection in historic buildings. (Photo: Apex News and Pictures Agency/Alamy Stock Photo)