By Richard Williams, Divisional Director, Oculus Building Consultancy & Assent Group
There has been a trend in recent years to take historical buildings and renovate them for different usage – offices, houses, flats and even schools now occupy some of the UK’s oldest structures. But working with heritage sites certainly comes with challenges. There are two significant areas that someone considering developing a heritage site needs to consider, even if the work is simply restoring a site to its former glory without change of use. And those are fire risk and accessibility.
Fire and heritage sites don’t mix well. You need only think about the significant fires in heritage sites in the last 40 and you could probably name the three main ones that have made the news – Notre Dame, Windsor Castle and York Minster. However, this only scratches the surface of the real story. Every year we lose heritage buildings to fire. Some are uninhabited or derelict, but many are in use today and the fire's cause damage that is often irreversible, meaning that we lose more of our history. Heritage buildings do present unique challenges for fire safety as they were built in a time when no fire safety regulations were enforceable or in place. It is, however, the responsibility of the industry to ensure that any retrofit or works carried out to a heritage building complies with the current fire safety standards, whilst trying to be sympathetic to the historic fabric and features.
There are a number of things that any building owner needs to do in order to protect a heritage site, starting with the most obvious, which is to carry out a full Fire Risk Assessment. This is a legal requirement and because of the many intricacies of a heritage site, it is also recommended that this is done by a competent assessor with an understanding and appreciation of fire safety in heritage buildings. A Fire Risk Assessment should be reviewed regularly to maintain its relevancy and ensure nothing has been done to the building that might alter the result of the assessment.
Every site should have an Emergency Response Plan that includes details of contacts, site plans and log sheets. If the site contains artifacts of historical value a Salvage Plan should also be included. This identifies the items that should be salvaged first, how to remove them and where in the building they are situated.
Making a heritage building fire safe can be challenging but there are several different aspects that should be considered:
The use of compartmentation to reduce the risk of fire spreading either around the building or to other buildings that might be linked through hidden voids, cavities, roof spaces and facades. Surveys can be carried out to identify these risks and put remedial works in place to help deal with these challenges.
Automatic fire detection systems are critical to give early warning of a fire and advise occupants of the need to evacuate the building quickly and safely via the nearest route. These should always be installed in a retrofit of a building.
Whilst some heritage sites may have sprinkler systems and dry risers, these should be checked against current regulations as they may not have been installed to current standards. Automatic Fire Suppression Systems should be installed to ensure the safety of the building, its occupants, and its contents.
It is highly likely that heritage buildings will have been constructed using non-compliant materials including glass, wooden panelling, lath and plaster and occasionally asbestos. Consideration needs to be given to the affect this will have on fire safety and how best to mitigate this.
Fire doors can be an incredibly effective way to prevent the spread of a fire in any building but in a heritage building it is unlikely that any of the original doors are fire rated. It is not always possible to remove these doors and replace them with more modern and compliant doors so it is worth considering the solutions that are available that can make an existing historic door more resistant to fire and heat.
The best advice for any owner or occupier of a heritage building is to get the building surveyed by a competent person. This person should be fully versed in the current fire regulations and can help you to put an effective plan in place to make the building a safer place for its occupants, the public and any historical artefacts. Fire can very quickly take hold and spread through a heritage site and any adjoining buildings so ensuring regular checks and updates is vital.
In 2010, the Equality Act came into force requiring all buildings to have disabled access. The access requirements go further than just the obvious as it also covers people who are visiting and or working in the building. Heritage sites must ensure equal access for every user, or visitor into all parts including the historical part/building.
Part M of the Building Regulations provides designers with guidance on access to and use of buildings but there are so many intricacies involved with historical sites that to meet every requirement can often be challenging. This is often due to the layout of the building or strict planning controls that affect any alterations or works to these types of buildings.
Access is an important part of a sustainable approach to caring for our historic environment and sensitive alterations will always consider what it is that makes the building significant or special. The guiding principle when it comes to heritage sites is to make them accessible, at the same time as ensuring responsible care of the historic environment. This can be achieved with thoughtful and effective design that is sympathetic to the existing structure.
Part M of the Building Regulations stipulates that: The aim is to improve accessibility where practically possible, provided the work does not prejudice the character of the building or increase the risk of long-term deterioration to the building fabric or fittings.