How to Improve Fire Safety in Old Buildings?

The preservation of historic buildings is not just about maintaining architectural beauty; it’s fundamentally about safeguarding our cultural heritage. However, one of the most devastating threats to these irreplaceable structures is fire. The complexity of improving fire safety in old buildings lies not only in the preservation of their historical essence but also in integrating modern fire safety measures that are both effective and respectful of their original construction and design. This article aims to delve deep into how we can enhance fire safety in old buildings, addressing the unique challenges that come with retrofitting them with modern fire safety measures.

Improve Fire Safety in Old Buildings
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    1 - Assessment of Current Fire Safety Measures

    The first step in enhancing fire safety in historic buildings is a thorough assessment of existing fire safety measures. This evaluation considers the building’s specific needs and vulnerabilities, acknowledging that every historic building has unique architectural features and materials that influence its fire safety requirements. For instance, the presence of ancient timber, large open spaces, or intricate decorative elements can significantly impact how fire spreads and how it can be contained.

    Utilising the FireArrest app, professionals can conduct comprehensive fire risk assessments efficiently. You can create a digital checklist and store guidelines tailored to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of historic buildings, ensuring a thorough evaluation process.

    2 - Fire Safety Management

    Effective fire safety management in historic buildings encompasses the development and integration of comprehensive fire safety management plans. FireArrest app emerges as a pivotal tool in this domain, offering a platform that can facilitate regular reviews, risk assessments, and the documentation of emergency procedures tailored to the building’s unique architecture and historical significance.

    The goal is to create a proactive approach to fire safety that not only addresses potential fire hazards but also ensures the preparedness of staff and occupants in the event of a fire.

    3 - Active and Passive Fire Protection Measures

    Understanding and implementing both active and passive fire protection measures is crucial. Active measures, such as fire detection and alarm systems, sprinklers, and fire extinguishers, are designed to detect fire, suppress it, or aid in evacuation. In contrast, passive fire protection measures focus on containing fires and preventing their spread through the use of fire-resistant materials and compartmentalisation. This dual approach ensures a multifaceted defence against fire, combining immediate response capabilities with structural resilience.

    Case Study: The Hamilton Manor, UK

    Background: The Hamilton Manor is a historical estate located in the heart of the English countryside. Dating back to the 18th century, it features a combination of Georgian architectural elements and Victorian additions, making it a site of significant cultural and architectural interest. The estate includes the main manor house, several outbuildings, and extensive landscaped gardens.

    Challenge: The primary challenge in retrofitting The Hamilton Manor was to upgrade its fire safety measures without compromising its historical integrity. The building’s original construction materials, including timber framing and lath-and-plaster walls, presented significant fire risks. Moreover, the estate’s isolated location meant that any fire could rapidly become catastrophic before external fire services could respond.


    1. Assessment and Planning: A comprehensive fire risk assessment was conducted using the FireArrest app, identifying key vulnerabilities such as the lack of fire detection systems in the attic spaces and the absence of compartmentation that could prevent fire spread. Based on this assessment, a bespoke fire safety plan was developed.
    2. Integration of Fire Detection Systems: Modern, wireless fire detection systems were installed throughout the manor. These systems were chosen for their minimal impact on the building’s aesthetics and their ability to be integrated without extensive wiring.
    3. Installation of Sprinkler Systems in High-Risk Areas: Water mist sprinkler systems were installed in high-risk areas, including the kitchen and areas housing valuable artifacts. These systems were selected for their effectiveness in suppressing fires without causing water damage to valuable interiors.
    4. Compartmentation and Fire Barriers: To enhance passive fire protection, fire-resistant barriers were discreetly installed in attic spaces and within walls, creating compartments that could contain a fire. Historical features were preserved by using reversible modifications wherever possible.
    5. Staff Training and Emergency Planning: The estate’s staff received specialised training in fire safety management, including the use of fire extinguishers and the execution of an emergency evacuation plan tailored to the manor’s layout.

    Outcome: The retrofitting project successfully enhanced The Hamilton Manor’s resilience to fire, significantly reducing the risk of fire damage while preserving its historical and architectural integrity. The project serves as a model for balancing fire safety with conservation goals in heritage properties.

    Retrofitting Buildings with Passive Fire Protection

    Importance of Passive Fire Protection

    Passive fire protection plays a critical role in safeguarding the structure and occupants of historic buildings from fire. Unlike active fire protection systems, which require action to function (like extinguishing a fire), passive fire protection is built into the structure of a building. It works to contain fires and prevent the spread of smoke and flames, crucial for protecting both people and the building itself until the fire can be controlled or extinguished. In historic buildings, where the impact of fire can be particularly devastating, passive fire protection measures are essential for preserving irreplaceable architectural elements and artifacts.

    Fire-Resistant Materials

    When retrofitting historic buildings with passive fire protection, the choice of materials and methods must be carefully considered to ensure that they do not compromise the building’s historical integrity. Some of the materials used include intumescent paints and coatings that expand in the presence of heat to protect structural elements, fire-retardant materials for walls, ceilings, and floors, and fire-resistant glass for windows. Methods might involve the strategic installation of fire doors that blend with the historic decor, the use of compartmentalisation to limit fire spread, and the preservation of original features through the use of sympathetic materials and techniques.

    Compartmentalisation Techniques

    Compartmentalisation remains one of the most effective passive fire protection strategies. This involves subdividing a building into smaller sections using fire-resistant walls and floors, effectively containing a fire to its point of origin and preventing it from spreading. In historic buildings, this can be achieved through the strategic placement of fire doors and barriers that are designed to blend seamlessly with the existing architecture, using materials and finishes that mimic the original.

    Smoke Management Systems

    Smoke management is critical in protecting both the building and its occupants. Systems designed to control and vent smoke can significantly improve safety during a fire incident. For historic buildings, this may involve the discreet installation of smoke vents and the use of pressurisation systems in stairwells to keep escape routes clear of smoke. These systems must be carefully integrated to ensure they do not detract from the building’s historical character.

    Protection of Open Spaces

    Large open spaces, common in historic buildings, pose a particular challenge for fire safety. Solutions such as fire curtains—fabric barriers that descend to contain a fire and smoke—can be invisibly integrated into the building’s design and deployed automatically in the event of a fire. These curtains allow for the preservation of open-plan layouts while providing essential fire containment and compartmentalisation.

    What are Common Challenges with Fire Safety in Old Buildings?

    Balancing Safety with Preservation

    The biggest challenge in retrofitting historic buildings with passive fire protection is balancing the need for safety with the desire to preserve the building’s character. Solutions involve using reversible modifications wherever possible, ensuring any interventions can be removed or reversed without damaging the original fabric of the building. This approach respects the building’s historical integrity while providing essential fire protection.

    Regulatory Compliance

    Navigating the regulatory landscape is another significant challenge. Historic buildings often need exemptions or special considerations to comply with modern fire safety codes. Working closely with heritage and fire safety authorities from the project’s outset ensures that all interventions are compliant and appropriate for the building’s status.

    Technical Guidelines and Standards

    Following technical guidelines and standards specific to historic buildings is crucial. In the UK, Historic England provides detailed guidance on fire safety management in heritage assets, offering a wealth of resources for building owners and managers. These guidelines emphasise the importance of a tailored approach, recognising that each historic building requires a unique solution to meet its specific needs.


    Enhancing fire safety in old buildings through both active and passive measures is not just about protecting structures; it’s about preserving our cultural heritage for future generations. While the challenges are significant, the collaborative efforts of conservationists, fire safety experts, and regulatory bodies continue to yield innovative solutions that respect the past while looking towards a safe future. Ongoing research and the development of new materials and technologies promise even greater advancements in the protection of historic buildings from fire.

    As we look towards a safer future for historic buildings, FireArrest embodies the collaborative spirit necessary to preserve these irreplaceable structures for future generations.


    Yes, passive fire protection can work in old buildings, this can include the use of fire-resistant doors, walls, floors, and coatings that compartmentalise a building to contain fires at their origin.

    Fire doors play a crucial role by acting as barriers to the spread of fire and smoke, allowing occupants time to evacuate safely. In historic buildings, it’s important to select fire doors that not only comply with fire safety standards but also match the aesthetic and architectural integrity of the building.

    Yes, intumescent paint can be applied to historic timber and plaster to improve their fire resistance. It expands when exposed to high temperatures, forming a protective char that insulates the material from the fire. However, it’s important to choose products that are compatible with the substrate and do not harm the historical materials.

    Compartmentalisation involves dividing a building into sections using fire-resistant barriers. This limits the spread of fire and smoke to other parts of the building, protecting escape routes and reducing damage. In old buildings, creating compartments can be challenging but is achieved through careful planning and the use of appropriate materials.

    Smoke management systems, including vents and pressurisation of stairwells, help control the movement of smoke during a fire, keeping escape routes clear and reducing harm to occupants and the building’s interior. These systems must be designed to be effective without compromising the building’s structure or appearance.

    Technology like the FireArrest app can streamline the assessment and management of fire safety in old buildings. It offers tools for conducting risk assessments, planning upgrades, and ensuring compliance with fire safety regulations, all while considering the unique needs of historic structures.

    Navigating the regulatory landscape is complex, as historic buildings may have protections that limit alterations. Retrofitting must comply with fire safety standards while respecting heritage preservation guidelines, often requiring approvals from multiple authorities.

    Staff training and emergency planning are critical components of a comprehensive fire safety strategy. Educating staff on the specific risks and procedures associated with the building ensures a swift and effective response in case of a fire, which is crucial for the safety of occupants and the preservation of the building.

    Ideally, passive fire protection interventions should be reversible, allowing for the removal or alteration of the measures without permanent damage to the building’s historic fabric. This approach respects the building’s cultural significance while providing necessary fire safety.

    Improving Fire Safety in Old Buildings - Infographic