Heritage buildings and the challenges compliance with current regulations


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 Risk
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.

Garden Access
When considering alterations to a site, operators, designers, and contractors should also be thinking about the gardens that frequently go hand in hand with the building itself. Whilst alterations to the gardens may seem simple, planning permission may be required and, at the very least, professional guidance on appropriate alterations should be sought. It’s about balancing the needs of access with the needs of conservation. Here are some examples of adjustments that should be considered and evaluated:
- Replacing existing gravel surfaces with self-binding gravel to provide a firmer surface
- Incorporating a level route within an area which has an uneven surface
- Providing alternative routes and adding appropriate signage
- Using interpretation or multimedia devices to provide alternative access to areas that remain physically inaccessible
- Using trained staff and guided tours as an alternative to making physical changes
Historic England has many more suggestions as to the ways in which gardens and the surrounding areas of historic sites can be altered to provide the greatest level of access. You will find this in their guidance document: Easy Access to Historic Buildings.

Structural Alterations
When considering alterations to the structure of a heritage site, an access strategy will be needed which sets out what it is you intend to do and why. This document provides the details of why the solutions being employed have been chosen and gives the design team and building owner an opportunity to set out their vision for the finished works. This is particularly important if the suggested design falls outside of the accepted parameters. This strategy should start by asking six simple questions:
- What needs to be improved – is it the building itself, the way it’s managed or a combination of the two?
- What would be a reasonable adjustment?
- What are the statutory obligations that must be met?
- Which are the conservation considerations that must be considered?
- Who is responsible for balancing these?
- How much will it cost and how long is it going to take?

Historic England recommends early consultation with building control, planning departments and in some cases the fire brigade to help ensure that the correct processes are followed and that the design is both sympathetic, compliant, and safe for the users/occupants.

Solutions for Steps
For many heritage buildings, narrow points of entry or steep steps without handrails can cause issues and can be dealt with under the Equality Act 2010. There are several solutions when considering steps, each  providing a different way of dealing with access to ensure those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility can gain entry to some of our most historic buildings. The following solutions have all been successfully implemented at heritage sites in the UK and need to be assessed individually for their suitability for a specific building and should form part of a well-managed environment:
- Provide flat and level access. This will require significant works to be done to the structure of the building to change the existing access point.
- Provide temporary ramps that can be removed at a later point. These are not an ideal solution but can provide a short-term measure to enable access.
- Provide semi-permanent ramps. This is particularly useful if a longer-term solution is being sought but the site is holding an event that is likely to increase visitor numbers significantly. Temporary ramps need not necessarily look temporary but are often built from materials such as wood which can be sensitively removed.
- Provide a permanent ramp. This will either be shallow or steeper in its gradient which will be determined by the building itself and its proximity to other structures.
- Install a platform lift. Lifts can either have a rise of less than or greater than 1m. Platform lifts are a good way to provide access but there can be challenges around volume of users and speed. Some users can also feel slightly ill at ease in a platform lift.
- Install a retracting stair lift. The design of stair lifts has improved significantly and can now be designed to be completely sympathetic to the surrounding, often almost completely camouflaged. Horizontally retracting stair lifts can be installed either with a lift below 1000mm rise or above a 1000mm rise. Vertically retracting stair lifts are also available where space is at a premium.

Access to heritage sites is a complex and difficult area to tackle when it comes to making alterations to a building. The best approach is to speak to both planning and building control early in the process and take advice from people who have experience of successfully delivering these types of projects. They may be able to offer insight that saves time and money and delivers a more comprehensive solution.

It is fantastic to see so many of our historic buildings being returned to their former glory or being brought into the 21st Century by changing the internal configurations. We are fortunate to have so many heritage sites in the UK, but the onus is on the developer and the owner/occupier to ensure that the renovations meet with all current regulations. Fire risk and accessibility form the backbone of the requirements for these types of structures so it’s vital that you work with a competent professional who understands the subtleties and nuances that exist within the regulations that can enable a building that is well over 500 years old to still be compliant with current regulations. It’s also important that these buildings can be enjoyed by everyone and accessibility is the key to ensuring this happens – building with everyone is mind is vital. Our history is what makes us all who we are today and protecting that legacy is the job of everyone involved in heritage construction projects.


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