Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2018.

Saving History

Solutions exist to preventing catastrophic fires in historic buildings, like the one that destroyed a 200-year-old museum in Brazil in September. So why aren’t they implemented more frequently?


Audio: Listen to this article as read by the author.

To José Urutau Guajajara, the flames felt like murder.

He was reacting to the massive blaze that gutted Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on September 2. Millions of cultural artifacts were destroyed in the fire, including tens of thousands of relics from indigenous Brazilian tribes.

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Guajajara, a member of one of those tribes, likened the loss to “a new genocide, as though they had slaughtered all these indigenous communities again, because that was where our memory resided,” he told The New York Times.

Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, deemed the losses “incalculable” in a tweet posted the day of the fire. “It’s a sad day for all Brazilians,” Temer wrote.

According to museum experts, fire safety officials, and politicians who were interviewed after the incident, it was a loss that could have been prevented with additional attention and resources for the museum, which could have paved the way for critical fire safety upgrades. The 200-year-old building, a former palace for the Portuguese royal family, lacked fire sprinklers and fire doors. Fire hydrants close to the museum failed to provide responding firefighters with an adequate water supply to fight the flames. The museum held about 20 million artifacts, roughly 90 percent of which were destroyed in the fire. Although news coverage of the incident has largely focused on the fact that it was a museum that burned, raising questions over the value society places on preserving artifacts, the fact that it was a historic building is just as significant—museums or not, historic buildings are at high risk for catastrophic fires unless modern fire and life safety systems have in some way been added to them.


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The museum fire in Brazil was the latest in a series of massive blazes that have recently occurred in historic buildings worldwide, many of which have started during construction operations as part of restoration projects. In June, fire gutted a 110-year-old building in Glasgow, Scotland, that was being used as a library by the Glasgow School of Art—the building was undergoing restorations following a fire in 2014. Sprinklers were to be included as part of the restoration, but they had not yet been installed. In August, a fire spread through a historic retail building in Belfast, Ireland. The building, which has been a staple in the city’s shopping district since 1785, was also undergoing renovations. Sprinklers were reportedly present, but it was unclear immediately after the incident whether they had been properly maintained or if they activated during the fire.

Incidents like these are nothing new. Fires in historic buildings are a well-documented problem, and organizations and companies including NFPA, the National Park Service, and Siemens have all weighed in on the problem and offered solutions. NFPA 914, Fire Protection of Historic Structures, specifically outlines measures that can be taken to protect historic buildings from fires, including installing automatic fire sprinklers and using NFPA 241, Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, when applicable.

Such solutions often aren’t implemented, though, because of a lack of government support, misconceptions among property owners, and the intrinsic challenges—and costs—of retrofitting historic, sometimes centuries-old structures with modern fire and life safety technology.

“If you try to enforce code requirements that are applicable to new buildings on historic buildings, it can be very expensive and challenging,” said Don Moeller, a California fire safety engineering consultant and chair of the NFPA 914 technical committee. “So often, people find it easier to just do nothing.”

Old and at risk

Since humans began building structures, fire has been there to destroy them. Entire cities have been reshaped following conflagrations, with wider streets and stricter building codes to stop fire’s spread from structure to structure as well as within the structures themselves. Over time, the blazes and subsequent changes have resulted in buildings—and whole cities—that burn less frequently.

“Modern building codes, noncombustible materials … cities platted with wide streets for automobiles, vigorous firefighting institutions—all have dampened the presence of fire,” fire historian Stephen Pyne writes in his 2001 book Fire: A Brief History. “Virtually every niche of the built landscape—every room, every structure, every city block—follows designs intended to prevent fire, or if a fire begins, to stymie its spread and provide easy escape for residents and access for firefighters.”

Historic buildings were often designed decades or even centuries before such modern codes existed, and can be inherently at high risk for catastrophic fires. Growing up in a house built in 1850, Eric Anderson, a structure fire training specialist with the National Park Service, saw firsthand the outdated construction methods that can prime properties for devastating blazes.

“As I helped my dad with construction projects, he would point out fire concerns, such as … how there were no boards against the wall between the first and second floors, which I now know to be called balloon-frame construction,” Anderson wrote in a 2016 article on the National Park Service’s website, “At the time, what balloon-frame construction meant to me was, ‘Don’t drop the hammer, or it’ll be lost behind the wall downstairs.’ What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that it also meant that a fire could quickly extend all the way up and through the building.”

Statistics aren’t uniformly kept on fires in historic buildings, and the definition of “historic” can vary widely among jurisdictions. A 2015 report by Siemens, the industrial manufacturing company, however, sheds light on the prevalence of such fires throughout North America and Europe. In Canada, the report says, about 30 such fires occur each year, while about 10 occur in Scotland. In England, at least a dozen historic buildings are lost to fire each year, and since 2000, Germany has lost 70. Numbers from the United States weren’t included.

The Siemens report details engineering solutions for preventing fires in historic buildings and museums, which are often housed in historic buildings—it’s estimated that fewer than 20 percent of museums worldwide are in fact found in “modern, purpose-built structures, where the appropriate fire-protection building codes have been observed,” according to the report. Similar to systems made by other companies, the solutions offered by Siemens focus on the integration of modern technology, such as automatic fire sprinklers and advanced smoke detection systems, into the historic fabric of these buildings. Similar solutions are outlined in NFPA 914, as well as NFPA 909, Protection of Cultural Resource Properties—Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship.

According to Moeller, the NFPA 914 technical committee chair, however, in too many instances historic buildings often remain in their antiquated, unsafe state because it’s the easier, less-costly way to go and fire protection is usually placed at a lower priority than operational needs.

Moving the needle on safety

To avoid that stagnation, Moeller said, owners of historic buildings and local code officials should work together to devise alternative solutions that make sense for individual properties, design methods that, while not conforming to the requirements found in modern building codes, still provide an acceptable level of fire and life safety. “Each property needs a custom-made package,” he said. “You can’t use the same cookbook approach that you would on a new building.”

Collaborating to find innovative solutions allows for omitting certain code requirements that couldn’t possibly be met without an insurmountable expense for the building owner, or without damaging the historic fabric of the property—for instance, replacing an entire original staircase with a new, larger one. “The original stair might not meet the current code, but it still provides an acceptable means of egress,” Moeller said. (For more on how architects devise these solutions during historic courthouse restorations, see the September/October 2018 NFPA Journal article "Restoring Justice".)

Other upgrades, though, especially fire sprinklers, are worth the investment, Moeller said, even if it means going above and beyond what current codes might require for a certain property in a certain jurisdiction. “If sprinklers had been active in any of the recent fires in historic buildings, including the one in Brazil, I think the result would have been significantly different,” he said. He’s aware of the pushback sprinklers receive in the museum community, fed by fears that they’ll cause water damage to irreplaceable works of art and other artifacts. Moeller’s response to doubters is simple: “After a fire, do you want to be dealing with maybe a burned-up trashcan and a scarred wall, or nothing but a smoldering foundation?” Inadvertent activations of sprinklers, he added, are “very rare.”

While government funding for historic preservation projects is one way to pay for fire and life safety upgrades in historic buildings, it’s not one that can be relied on.

The Brazil museum fire has been blamed in large part on a lack of government funding to pay for repairs to the crumbling museum. In other parts of the world, like the European Union and United States, models for government funding of historic buildings are more robust since they’re “seen as part of the common cultural assets of a community,” Moeller said, but the models aren’t universal and budget cuts are a constant reality. “You’re competing against all the other voices crying for public money,” he said. Data from the American Association of Museums, for example, shows that, in 1989, U.S. museums received 38 percent of their funding from the government; by 2012, that figure had dropped to 24 percent. President Trump recently proposed deep cuts to funding for the nation’s cultural institutions. The trend has left many museums and other historic buildings no choice but to rely on fundraising efforts to generate money for repairs and other upgrades.

The Brazil fire may be the watershed moment that effects change. “It’s an unfortunate truth, but often the best way to motivate people to pay attention and start investing in things like sprinkler systems in historic buildings is by raising awareness of catastrophic fires,” Moeller said. “I certainly see an incident like [the Brazil fire], with this sort of visibility and this sort of incredible loss, making a huge impact on the public’s perception of the need to prioritize fire safety—even if that impact is brief.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images