Fires have resulted in countless old buildings and their contents being damaged, destroyed or devalued, leading to heartache for owners and the loss of our nation’s heritage. While it is impossible to completely eliminate all risk, there are steps that can be taken to minimise it.

Early timber buildings were incredibly vulnerable to fire with the threat heightened by the prevalence of candles and sparks from open fires. Ever since the Great Fire of London in 1666, building regulations have sought to reduce the dangers but, with any older structure, there is a need to be wary because many were constructed in ways that can result in the rapid spread of fire, or allow a fire to smoulder unnoticed before flaring up and engulfing a property in flames.

As with anything, prevention is better than cure, so here are ways to keep your home safe from setting on fire in the first place, while also addressing measures that can be taken to limit damage and ensure escape should the worst happen.

Building Regulations and fire safety: Part B

Any extensive building work to a property will need to comply with Building Regulations. Part B regulates fire safety in properties. By complying with Part B, you can ensure that:

  • There will be safe escape routes from your home in the event of a fire;
  • The spread of fire will be restricted or prevented between your home and neighbouring properties;
  • The spread of fire will be restricted or prevented within your property;
  • The fire brigade will be able to gain access.

The best way to be sure that your project complies with the Building Regulations is to have all plans checked by Building Control during the design stage. They will also need to inspect your property throughout the project, and sign it off on completion.

Fire prevention

There are a number of ways to reduce the risk of a fire occurring in the first place. Some are common sense, but if you live in an old home (especially one built prior to the advent of the Building Regulations), you may find the need to take extra precautions.

  • Have the chimney swept at least once a year. Make sure this is done before lighting it for the first time and get it lined if necessary. A chimney cowl will help stop nesting birds who are responsible for many chimney fires.
  • Check for interconnecting gaps and voids in the fabric of the building that can hasten the spread of fire. The loft space between terraced homes was once left open. Ensure there is a fireproof barrier between you and neighbouring properties.
  • Prohibit smoking on site during renovation works.
  • Get the electrics updated. Dated wiring is responsible for many house fires. You should also avoid overloading sockets — limit use of multiplug adapters and switch off/unplug appliances when not in use.
  • Never leave a naked flame unattended.
  • Keep combustible materials a safe distance from fires/candles and use a fire guard to prevent sparks. This may also mean thinking carefully about the placement of furniture made prior to use of fire-resistant materials — pre-1950/antique furniture is a particular risk.
  • Check electric blankets before use. Frayed wires, creasing, loose connections and dampness all make them vulnerable to catch fire. Always replace them if you are unsure.
Period style fireplace with open fire

If your home has an open fire, make sure the chimney is swept at least once a year, keep combustible material away from flames and use a fire guard

Smoke alarms and heat detectors

Should a fire start, alarms give you the best chance of being alerted to the fire in time to escape safely. Smoke detectors – preferably mains powered and linked to one another – are therefore essential in any home. 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. You should also keep a fire blanket readily to hand and position at least one fire extinguisher on each floor of the building.

Modern alarm systems are capable of alerting you to a fire. Where the system is connected to a remote monitoring service via a telephone line, the fire brigade is called as quickly as possible, even if your home is unoccupied. This may mean the difference between saving the historic fabric or losing everything, particularly in thatched homes.

Despite these advantages, such systems need to be installed with sensitivity to the building’s fabric. Always talk through the installation process with the alarm company before signing a contract and, if possible, coordinate the installation with other work. Alternatively, consider a wireless system.

Should you install a sprinkler system?

Wales made sprinkler systems mandatory on new builds in 2016, but the rest of the UK has not followed suit. However, if you can’t create a suitable means of escape (see more below), a sprinkler system can be installed instead.

This can be an advantage for those who can’t alter the layout of the building, or can’t replace antique doors with fire doors. Where sprinklers are installed, fires are almost always contained to one room, preventing further loss and damage.

Opponents will complain that sprinklers have to use large volumes of water to extinguish a fire, which can then cause water damage and damp. However, sprinklers tend to work on individual heat sensors meaning they will only go off directly next to the fire.

Another common argument against their use is their expense, but since they significantly reduce the spread of fire in a property, they could make the difference between the cost of repairing one room and the cost of finding a new home. What’s more, they will limit the cost of the alternatives such as fire doors, and reworking layouts for a means of escape.

How to ensure you can escape in the event of a fire

Every habitable room requires a safe means of escape. This is a fire-resistant route from the room, to a ground-floor door (or in certain circumstances, a first-floor egress window).

Creating this route can be complex, but the essentials are ensuring there is a way out where the materials used will be fire-resistant for 30 minutes. This usually means installing fire doors and checking that the floors or walls will hold-back fire for at least half an hour. Since fires commonly start in kitchens, a room other than the kitchen will usually be required as the point of escape. Talk to a building inspector ahead of any renovation work will make sure your design meets requirements.

Security measures need to be balanced with the dangers of fire, so always ensure a means of escape through windows and doors is available and keep the required keys to hand.

Fire doors: conserving period features

Many internal doors are replaced or damaged because of the need to comply with fire regulations. It may be possible to adapt and upgrade original doors to meet such requirements by fitting fire retardant board to one side and by employing intumescent products that expand and char in the event of fire, slowing its spread.

Alternatively, consider installation of sprinklers which mean focus is turned to stopping the fire, rather than placing emphasis on having an enclosed means of escape.

Loft conversions

Where a loft conversion leads to your home being three (or more) storeys high, you can not rely on a window as a means of escape. The converted loft still needs an escape window of at least 0.33m² in size, but you will also need to create a safe means of escape via a fire-proofed corridor to the outside. This could mean upgrading wall, floor and door materials to ensure your escape route has 30-minutes of fire resistance.

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