Historic Churches 2019

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON HISTORIC CHURCHES 26 TH ANNUAL EDITION 25 NOTRE DAME The need for better fire prevention strategies Jonathan Taylor and Felicity Fox T HE LAST decade has seen the destruction of a number of historic buildings as a result of preventable fires, including most recently, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, which suffered serious damage to its roof and the collapse of its spire in April 2019. Thankfully, the Gothic cathedral’s main structure, its magnificent rose windows and much of its original fabric was saved largely due to the efforts of the 400 firefighters deployed, and there was no loss of life. However, at roof level the destruction was almost complete, including the craftsmanship and creativity dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The global media attention which followed the fire highlights the value placed on our historic churches and cathedrals by the public. The TV images of the people of Paris standing in stunned silence is evidence of how deeply these buildings are ingrained in our cultural identity. And the impact was not limited to Parisians alone. Coverage in the UK was unprecedented, dominating the headlines for days, and the tragedy was widely reported across the world. Key factors behind the significance of this landmark building to ordinary people include the clearly visible layering of history in its architecture and fabric; the decorative detailing of carved timber and stonework; its imagery of fantastical beasts and demons; and its scale as well as the unique quality of its interior with its dappled light, filtered by leaded light windows and stained glass. These qualities are shared with countless medieval churches throughout the UK and Europe, and while Notre Dame may have the additional fame which comes from its location in a capital city and its depiction in popular fiction, it is a mistake to think of cathedrals, churches, mosques and synagogues as being simply religious buildings belonging to a group of a particular faith. This was recognised in French president Emmanuel Macron’s immediate announcement that the state would step in to ensure the building is restored to its former glory. But the tragedy and its popular perception also highlights the need for state involvement at a much earlier stage, in the maintenance and repair of historic places of worship too, to minimise the risk of such losses in the future. MANAGING THE RISKS Historic buildings are particularly vulnerable to fire damage for many reasons. Often due to fear of causing irreversible harm to the historic fabric, respective owners and managers are reluctant to retrofit their buildings effectively. This could include the installation of fire suppression systems such as water sprinklers which can help to extinguish a fire at the point of ignition, and fire compartmentation (fire barriers incorporating floors, walls and doors) which can prevent a fire from spreading to other parts of the building. Electrical installations and appliances may be old and inadequate for the current use of the building and vulnerable to overheating. Alarm systems which should alert the first responders to a blaze in its infancy are often inadequate due to their age or poor design, and often the water supply on site is inadequate to fight a fire. What’s more, in very old buildings there is often an accumulation of combustible debris in floor voids and roof spaces where it is surrounded by structural timbers and boards. Once ignited, the flames spread quickly and are difficult to extinguish. Time is of the essence when containing a blaze and, as such, organisations like Historic England strongly recommend that an emergency contingency plan be in place to help staff and firefighters mitigate risk to life, rescue any important artefacts, and to understand the layout of the building to maximise efficiency in a crisis. However, for too many historic buildings and their owners this isn’t a priority and by the time disaster strikes it is too late. By the time Parisian firefighters arrived to tackle the fire at Notre Dame cathedral it had already taken hold and the medieval wooden roof couldn’t be saved. This could have been prevented or contained using compartmentation or sprinkler systems. (Photo: Manhhai, CC BY 2.0, http://bc-url.com/fire )