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Why historic buildings are at risk of burning down

When I came across this online, my face dropped. Alston Hall, a beautiful Grade II listed Victorian Gothic country mansion was transformed from this…

Building before a fire

to this…

building after a fire

(Photo credit: BBC News)

Over seventy fire fighters battled the blaze. The roof collapsed with the majority of the mansion damaged by the inferno. What’s heart wrenching is the interior was mostly original containing historic joinery, plasterwork, fireplaces and light fittings. According to Historic England, the listing was described as “a highly decorative property”.

You may think that historic buildings are more prone to fire than modern constructions. Yes historic material does not offer the same level of protection when compared with modern equivalents. However, according to a study carried out by the Institute of Fire Engineers, thousands of historic buildings across the UK are at risk of burning down due to owners blocking attempts to install unattractive fire prevention and detection equipment.

For example, Steve Emery from the institute who also is a fire advise for Historic England said owners are reluctant to install sprinklers because of concerns that it will increase the chances of the building flooding if the system malfunctions.

There are other issues to take into consideration when exploring why historic buildings have a greater risk of burning down. I had this to say:

“Although Alston Hall was owned by the local authority, maintenance of the fire alarm system would generally be the responsibility of a contractor employed by the local authority. It is the contractor’s duty to inform the owner if the system does not provide sufficient protection or does not comply with the current standard. Sometimes, recommendations aren’t implemented due to budgeting issues or miscommunication from the contractor.”

Alston Hall was undergoing renovations at the time of the fire. We are unsure if this was a direct cause of the blaze. But what happens after the ash stops smouldering and the owners look to their insurance policy? All those historic features will be extremely expensive to replicate requiring the work of highly skilled craftsmen, For example, sourcing similar coloured and textured bricks is a challenge in its own right.

I wish the owners all the best for the restoration project. If you own or manage a historic building and are reviewing your fire alarm system, please visit our page the following page where you will find a thorough collection of information to help you during your review process.

Helen Jackson