Fire protection in historical and heritage buildings: 2021 and beyond

Museums, libraries, civic centres...any new construction will automatically be built to comply with regulations, codes of practice, insurance guidelines and modern active and passive fire protection. Unfortunately, old and historic buildings don’t have this luxury. Regardless, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (amended 2021) demands they meet new fire safety and related life safety standards. 

So the question is - how should you respond?

The challenge

Traditional building methods, material selection and obsolete electrical installations and equipment all pose significant fire risk. The challenge is to find the optimum path between providing maximum fire protection whilst preserving the authenticity and character of a building--its aesthetics and contents. 

This should also be done in a way that satisfies surveyors, planning officers, the Fire and Rescue Services, safety engineers and heritage specialists.

Fire detection

Fitting ASD (Aspirating Smoke Detection) systems in buildings could be an ideal solution as they are acutely sensitive to very low concentrations of smoke and provide early warning systems. Equally important is that they are virtually invisible because piping can be concealed. Wireless systems, reliable redundancy technology and very long battery lifetimes make these (as well as linear smoke detectors for rooms that are 6m or taller) ideal for buildings with ornate ceilings and fire risk.

Ace are approved installers, with leading manufacturers including Vesda / Xtralis, Honeywell Gent and Hochiki among others.

Alarm, smoke control and extraction

In the case of fire, smoke presents the greatest danger to life, and all possible measures should be taken to manage smoke infiltration throughout a building to protect life, fixtures and fittings. Compartmentalisation is important, and smoke should be restricted from accessing voids and cable ducting.

Smoke control systems or smoke clearance systems are beneficial for old or historic buildings. For example, Grade II listed Buxton Opera House uses a smoke extraction system without impacting the building’s interior. The fan and ductwork is fitted within the roof space, and the external roof mounted smoke louvre is installed below the existing parapet wall façade. It is finished to match the building’s slate roof aesthetic. The system can extract 8 m3/sec and is integrated with the building’s fire and smoke detection system.

Early detection, coupled with smoke extraction, is designed to preserve the contents of the building and help occupants escape safely.

Fire extinguishing

For many historic buildings, appropriately-placed foam fire extinguishers are suitable to tackle the majority of small fires early on. Fire hose reels can tackle larger incidents, and, using modern technology, sprinkler systems can be used and justified with very minimal water output. Larger historic buildings, however, will require more specialised fire extinguishing solutions:

  • Archives – consider ASD systems that activate a water / gas combined extinguishing system. Nitrogen gas effectively extinguishes the fire while fine water mist cools and prevents reigniting.
  • Kitchens – commercial kitchens are a significant fire risk. Consider Ansul kitchen fire suppression systems to control fire in high risk areas (cooking range, deep fat fryers, ovens and air extract systems). Wet chemical fire extinguishers (class F) should also be specified.
  • Plant rooms, archives and vaults – a gas extinguishing system is recommended for protection against electrical, combustible and other high-risk areas. No residuals are left behind and fire damage can be restricted to an individual piece of equipment or zone.

Top fire triggers

  • Arson (Schloss Ebelsbach, 2009)
  • Renovation work - lamp, roof, blowtorch etc (eg. Quebec Armory, 2008)
  • Electrical fault / short circuit (Notre Dame Cathedral, 2019)
  • Spotlight too close to a curtain (Windsor Castle, 1992)

Common challenges

  • Open and ill-fitting doors
  • Thin wall construction
  • Unknown wall or floor voids
  • Open staircases
  • Unstopped ventilation and building services
  • General lack of compartmentalisation

Top tips

Deciding on the most appropriate fire safety strategy is a balance between optimal fire protection, aesthetic sensitivity and preservation of life. While each site is unique, here are seven principles to keep in mind.

  1. Essential only – consider only those systems that are central to meeting the objectives of protecting life, buildings and contents

  2. Appropriate to risk – all physical measures must be proportionate and appropriate to the level and type of risk identified

  3. Sensitive integration – aesthetics should have a high priority in determining what, where and how

  4. Minimally invasive – all measures should have minimal physical impact on the fabric and décor of the building

  5. Reversible – ensure that any changes to the building can be reversed

  6. Good fire safety management – detect early, extinguish quickly, restrict to a small area or zone

  7. Robust fire risk assessment, documenting and reporting – fire risk, the probability of occurrence and consequential damage is an important process. The quality of fire risk assessments can vary immensely. It is worth investing in a fit-for-purpose fire risk assessment. Ace, for example, only conducts comprehensive identification and review of fire risk in accordance with the RRO (amended 2021) and BAFE SP205.

Useful links

Fire protection and life safety – read more

Fire and detection alarms – read more

Emergency Voice Communication Systems - read more

Passive fire protection – read more

Fire risk assessments – read more




RRO & the Fire Safety Act 2021

Kevin Burraway
Written by Kevin Burraway

Kevin is a fire protection and fire suppression specialist and Director of Ace Fire & Security.