Last Updated on 17 June 2019.
Assumptions: the mother of all disasters.
The catastrophic fire at Paris’s beloved and historic Notre Dame has thrown France into a frenzy of national mourning and the world’s onlookers into a state of shock.
The Gothic cathedral in the heart of Paris has witnessed wars and uprisings in its 850 years, but in a single night saw its roof and spire crashing down at the hands of a destructive fire.
Watching a building of that stature be reduced to flames that took no less than 14 hours to extinguish is never easy.
And it’s harder still when you’ve seen it happen time and time again.
The cause of the fire is currently unknown, however there is speculation that this could be linked to a refurbishment currently taking place in the cathedral.
Renovations are carried out every day, from the large-scale restoration of buildings from yesteryear down to small-scale refurbishments for aesthetic improvements or disability enhancements.
But how often is the consideration for fire safety built into a project’s scope of work?
For many, the Notre Dame fire brought back memories of the blaze at Windsor Castle in 1992, which was sparked by a workman’s spotlight setting alight a curtain within the private chapel.
Hundreds of buildings are lost each year to fire, with a significant proportion of them being linked to a lack of consideration and due diligence during building works.
In June 2018, five-star London hotel, The Mandarin Oriental, saw a fire caused by on-site welding work; closely followed by a fire at the Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art – the cause of which is still being investigated, albeit renovation was taking place at the time of the fire.
[Luckily, there have been no fatalities or life-threatening injuries as a result of these fires.]
In 2018 alone, more than 200 historic UK buildings went up in smoke.
Post-Grenfell, more careful attention is thankfully being paid to new-build buildings, however the same considerations apply to both older buildings and those undergoing reconstructive works.
Archaic buildings are particularly susceptible to the fast spreading of fire due to voids and cavities in walls, floors and ceilings – effectively providing a clear runway for the flames.
Buildings undergoing refurbishment are also extremely vulnerable as they’re likely to have exposed wires and timber, and potentially hot works occurring as part of the renovation.
Without careful consideration and applied management both before any restoration works take place and during, the entire safety of the building and its inhabitants is left to the mercy of chance.
Common Reasons for Fires During Building Renovations
Assuming it’s someone else’s responsibility.
We all know the age-old idiom of what happens when we “assume”. But still, we assume away! Fire is often seen as a rare occurrence and, therefore, conscious efforts relating to fire safety often slip down the priority list.
During construction and renovation work, there’s often many parties involved – from on-site liaisons to third-party contractors, so knowing where to place responsibility often gets confusing and/or overlooked…until something goes wrong and a full-scale investigation ensues to know where to point the finger.
Why spend more?
Ensuring a building is adequately protected during the process of a refurbishment can seem awkward and potentially introduce more costs – which, for buildings already undergoing a costly renovation, can seem like something that’s not worth the hassle. The focus is on the renovation task at hand, not the preservation of the building at the time of the renovation.
Lack of education.
During a refurbishment, many decide to cover smoke detectors (due to the dust and other particles contaminating the air during building works, creating false alarms) and others even go as far as removing them for the duration of the refurbishment. Little do they know that they are completely eradicating the fire detection measures in place within that building.
Sometimes this is down to ignorance and sometimes it’s a case of knowing better, but deciding it’s easier to just forgo the rules and get the job done.
Fire Safety Precautions to Take Before & During Refurbishments
1. Have a Fire Risk Assessment.
Many fire risk assessors will have woken up to the news about the Notre Dame fire and mouthed this question at the televised picture of the bell tower in flames: did they have a Fire Risk Assessment and, what’s more, did they employ the requirements stated in the assessment?
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 stipulates that the site’s designated responsible person must take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of fire. Fire Risk Assessments must be carried out at regular intervals and if the building has undergone any changes. This applies to structural changes but also even if the building’s ownership has changed, as the responsibility of the building’s fire safety will have changed hands.
One of our recent customers was undergoing a shop refurbishment and had a Fire Risk Assessment carried out before building works started. They’ve then got another assessment scheduled in for once the work is finished and it’s ready to reopen. By doing this, they’re ensuring the fire safety of the building and its inhabitants (including the builders, any staff and customers) both during the building’s renovation and state of vulnerability, and afterwards to ensure it can reopen as a safe and legally compliant premises.
Fire exits are likely to be blocked, hot works are likely to take place, timber is likely to be exposed – the list of hazards are endless during construction works of any kind. Notre Dame, for instance, was in the process of having 250 tons of lead removed from its spire as part of a £5m renovation project, which could well have been using heat application to remove it.
Contractors using heat application and electrical appliances generating heat to carry out building works need a hot works permit before starting any work. The permit details the nature of the hot works and proposed duration, in addition to the combustible materials within the vicinity and potential risks involved. This, along with the Fire Risk Assessment, should be used to assess all risks involved and implement fire safety procedures; from adequate fire detection to an evacuation plan and fire safety training for those on-site.
2. Install temporary fire detection and fire safety equipment.
The best fire detectors in the world are people. So, the building is most vulnerable when it’s vacant – e.g. at night when everyone’s left for the day. A fire can be caused by human error or equipment failure – or both – and without fire detection, it’ll be left to spread and burn until someone notices.
Many are concerned with the possibility of frequent false alarms if fire detection systems remain active during construction works, particularly if the building is still operational and open to the public during the renovation. Although false alarms are not ideal, what’s worse: a few frustrated customers or a building taken down by an unnecessary fire? If the installation of fire detection or life safety equipment is done by a competent specialist, false fire alarms should not be a frequent occurrence.
You can even install video smoke detection, which results in hardly any false alarms as the visual detection knows what it’s looking for and will only activate when it recognises what appears to be a fire. Temporary sprinkler systems can also be installed to automatically extinguish any fires.
The use of fire extinguishers is also important, as there are different types of fire extinguishers to fight different kinds of fire, so making sure you’ve got the right type for the environment you’re in is a consideration to take into account before any renovation work starts. For example, water extinguishers work best against fires involving wood, paper or textiles; whilst, carbon dioxide extinguishers are suitable for fighting fires involving petrol, oils and electrical apparatus.
3. Take care – especially when hot works are involved – and carry out a daily fire watch.
Something as simple as an overheated drill or transformer left on timber can have devastating consequences. Waiting for appliances to cool down sufficiently and carrying out daily inspections before leaving would go a long way to preventing a fire outbreak.
There should be a designated person on-site who is responsible for fire safety, however a basic level of care should be undertaken by all individuals, and everyone should have the knowledge of what to do in the event a fire does break out. Contractors should work into their tenders and scopes of work the time and duties undertaken to prevent fires and minimise overall safety risks during the renovation.
Predictable and Preventable
Fires are devastating – even more so because so many of them are predictable and preventable. By making assumptions and not taking adequate precautions, the fate of a cultural landmark and the people inside it is often left to chance.
While the cause of the Notre Dame fire is yet to be determined, there are prolific lessons to take from this.
Got a question about your building’s fire safety strategy or in need of a fire risk assessment? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01277 724 653.
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