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