The blog

Roger Hunt is an award winning writer and blogger specialising in sustainability, old houses, housebuilding and traditional and modern building materials. He is the co-author of Old House Handbook and the companion volume Old House Eco Handbook.

Fire in old buildings

Fire in old buildings

The devastating fire at the Grade I listed, 18th century National Trust mansion at Clandon Park, Surrey, once again highlights the need to do everything we can to protect old buildings. Whatever the size of the building, there are simple measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of fire, ensure early warning of a problem and help deal with the aftermath if the worst happens.

Reducing the risks

  • Always ensure chimneys are safe before lighting a fire and have them lined if necessary. They should be professionally swept on a regular basis.
  • Have a fire blanket readily to hand in the kitchen and at least one fire extinguisher on each floor of the building.
  • Have wiring checked regularly by a qualified electrical and replace old fuse boxes with consumer units that have circuit breakers which quickly isolate circuits if there’s a problem.
  • Damage caused by mice chewing through electrical cables is a very real fire risk. If this is problem, talk to your electrician about using a more durable alternative to the normal PVC type cable, partially in areas such as roof spaces.
  • Never allow smoking in or around the building during renovation work and avoid ‘hot works’ such as the use of blow torches wherever possible. Where such works are necessary, ensure contractors understand the risks. Stop all hot works at least an hour before leaving the site and make sure the area is thoroughly checked before locking up.
  • Consider the presence of interconnecting voids and gaps in the structure of an old building that can significantly hasten the spread of fire.
  • In vulnerable areas, consider using intumescent products that expand and char in the event of fire, slowing it spread. These include paints, collars around services where they pass through walls and strips fitted to the edges of fire doors.

Early warning

  • Smoke detectors – preferably mains powered and linked to one another – are essential. They MUST be tested regularly and their batteries replaced. In thatched properties in particular, install a hard wired smoke alarm in the roof space. A heat alarm, rather than a smoke alarm, should be fitted in the kitchen. Remember that smoke alarms should generally be covered when dust is being created so, during building works, install temporary battery operated smoke alarms at strategic points which can be disposed of at the end of the job.
  • Modern intruder alarm systems are often also capable of alerting you to fire. Those connected to a remote monitoring service via a telephone line, mean that the fire brigade is called as quickly as possible, even if your home is unoccupied. This may be the difference between saving the historic fabric or losing everything, particularly if thatch is involved. Some systems are wireless, minimising the need for cable runs and damage to the building’s historic fabric.

Have a plan

  • Think about how you and your family will escape if the worst should happen, especially from upper floors.
  • Make sure you have adequate insurance and that your insurer understands the risks and legal obligations associated with old buildings, especially when listed. Remember that old buildings tend to be more expensive to repair than modern ones.
  • Take photographs and have plans, drawings and descriptions of the building; pay particular attention to unusual features and architectural details such as fireplaces, doors and ironmongery. Keep this information somewhere secure – preferably off site.
  • Consider installing a fireproof safe for small items and your most valuable documents.
  • Although, for a homeowner, it’s likely to be difficult to follow the National Trust’s example, it’s worth noting the words of Helen Ghosh, the organisation’s director general, speaking immediately after the fire at Clandon: “We are still assessing what we’ve managed to save. Having a well rehearsed, well planned salvage plan and practicing it only a few weeks ago means that we probably got out more than might have been expected and we were very well drilled and very well supported.”

Image: Roger Hunt

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SPAB Working Party

For the last 25 years conservation experts and volunteer heritage enthusiasts have come together to join the annual Working Party run by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). I went along to join them and created a video about the Working Party at Sullington Manor Farm near Storrington, West Sussex. They were working…

Listed building allure

Listed building allure

Every year, many of the estimated 450,000 listed buildings in the UK change hands on the property market. In England and Wales these properties are designated Grade I, Grade II* or Grade II having being deemed to be of historical, cultural or architectural interest. All buildings built before 1700

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If you’re going to invest in just one book on sustainable, low carbon building I’d strongly suggest that you make it The Environmental Design Pocketbook. Now in its second edition, this useful volume by Sofie Pelsmakers should be essential reading for architects, designers, developers, planners, students, clients and anyone else involved in the construction and operation of buildings….

Fire in old buildings

Fire in old buildings

The devastating fire at the Grade I listed, 18th century National Trust mansion at Clandon Park, Surrey, once again highlights the need to do everything we can to protect old buildings. Whatever the size of the building, there are simple measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of fire, ensure early warning of a…

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Adapting old buildings

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Lime, in the form of mortars, renders, plasters and paints, is a key component of old buildings and essential to their repair – or at least it should be. Today lime-based materials are also emerging into the mainstream and being used within low carbon construction systems, employed in everything from homes to superstores. All this…

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A blocked drain is not a pleasant thing to wake up to. What’s worse is the realisation that it’s something that can generally be avoided by doing what I’m always talking about: maintenance. The drainage system is easily forgotten because much of it is hidden away underground but, as with any element of a building, it…

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Visiting Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the poppy installation at the Tower of London, reminded me that the built environment frequently plays an important part in both remembrance and memory. Each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies that flood the moat of the Tower depicts a death in the British forces in the First…

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New techniques and materials aimed at producing low carbon solutions mean this is an exciting time to be involved with new build and retrofit. There are dangers though, in the rush to innovate there may be failures along the way so it’s vital that there’s scrupulously testing and monitoring at all stages. This is why…

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Impending development often means there is a chance to step back in time because archaeological investigation may be undertaken as part of the work. This is especially true in London where layers of history have been laid down by successive generations as the city has evolved. Visiting Barratt London’s Landmark Place site close to the…

SPAB Working Party

For the last 25 years conservation experts and volunteer heritage enthusiasts have come together to join the annual Working Party run by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). I went along to join them and created a video about the Working Party at Sullington Manor Farm near Storrington, West Sussex. They were working…

Listed building allure

Listed building allure

Every year, many of the estimated 450,000 listed buildings in the UK change hands on the property market. In England and Wales these properties are designated Grade I, Grade II* or Grade II having being deemed to be of historical, cultural or architectural interest. All buildings built before 1700 Tweet

Environmental Pocketbook

Environmental Pocketbook

If you’re going to invest in just one book on sustainable, low carbon building I’d strongly suggest that you make it The Environmental Design Pocketbook. Now in its second edition, this useful volume by Sofie Pelsmakers should be essential reading for architects, designers, developers, planners, students, clients and anyone else involved in the construction and operation of buildings….

Fire in old buildings

Fire in old buildings

The devastating fire at the Grade I listed, 18th century National Trust mansion at Clandon Park, Surrey, once again highlights the need to do everything we can to protect old buildings. Whatever the size of the building, there are simple measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of fire, ensure early warning of a…

Adapting old buildings

Adapting old buildings

The need for fresh air and light in buildings is something I’m often talking and writing about because it’s central to creating a good home, but the theme is nothing new. I was reminded of this when I recently visited the King Edward VII Estate, near Midhurst, West Sussex. Here, the former sanatorium is being…

Building lime knowledge

Building lime knowledge

Lime, in the form of mortars, renders, plasters and paints, is a key component of old buildings and essential to their repair – or at least it should be. Today lime-based materials are also emerging into the mainstream and being used within low carbon construction systems, employed in everything from homes to superstores. All this…

Drain problems

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A blocked drain is not a pleasant thing to wake up to. What’s worse is the realisation that it’s something that can generally be avoided by doing what I’m always talking about: maintenance. The drainage system is easily forgotten because much of it is hidden away underground but, as with any element of a building, it…

Building remembrance

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Visiting Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the poppy installation at the Tower of London, reminded me that the built environment frequently plays an important part in both remembrance and memory. Each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies that flood the moat of the Tower depicts a death in the British forces in the First…

Renovation tale – Part 1

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This is the tale of my first major renovation project some years ago… On the table is the surveyor’s report; yellow Post-it notes stick from its pages in such profusion that they no longer have any relevance. Phrases like “needs attention”, “must be thoroughly overhauled” and “a fair amount of dampness” are highlighted by marker… Continue Reading