Protecting a historical building from fire is one of the most important things you can do for it. Not only do old buildings face the same natural threats of fire that modern ones do, but they are often ill-prepared to minimize the damage and suffer from unique risk factors. And many owners cannot or do not want to disrupt the entire structure in order to add modern fire protection methods.
So, what can you do now if you want to protect your irreplaceable historic structure and its furnishings or displays? Here are a few key steps to take that won't require a complete renovation.
1. Consult a Professional. Don't rely on your own ideas for retrofitting an historical building for fire protection. Instead, work with a professional who can help you find clever and suitable ways to make modern methods work in your particular structure.
2. Isolate Flammable Materials. The less flammable material is in a given space, the less likely a fire is and the slower it will spread. Assess the flammability of everything in the building, particularly the fabric and organic materials. While you likely don't want to remove all flammable items, you can often separate them to hinder fire travel. For instance, instead of featuring antique tapestries right next to each other, you might limit them to one or two per room and increase the distance.
3. Communicate Well. Fire protection is often only as good as it is implemented and used. Whatever your plans to minimize the risks and to respond to fires, communicate it clearly to all your staff. Everyone should be trained on things like how to spot a potential fire hazard, how to store flammable materials safely, and what immediate steps to take if they suspect a fire.
4. Compartmentalize. Trapping a fire in one area helps slow it down. But many older buildings don't offer ways to trap, or compartmentalize, a fire. Make sure there are solid doors — preferably fireproof — to each room that can be closed. In large open spaces, design a separation of flammable materials so that the fire fails to find fuel to spread. And ensure that chimneys and fireplaces can be shut down immediately.
6. Reduce Ignition Sources. Ignition sources are places where light, heat, electricity, or flame could ignite a fire. Identify potential ignition sources within your structure. This might include anything from an electrical outlet to candles and fireplaces. Reduce the number of these potential problem sources and work to isolate them — such as by removing electrical cords from areas with lots of fabrics.
Need more ideas to help your building? Start by talking with a fire protection engineer today. You will undoubtedly sleep better tonight knowing that you have helped preserve history.