Risky Business: Fire Protection for 
Historic Structures

By Chuck Ross | Sep 15, 2016




Few building types pose the fire-protection challenges that museums present to fire-safety-system designers and installers. Certainly, the safety of building occupants remains the top responsibility. But in these specialized settings, preserving building contents—and, in many cases, the structure and finishes of the building itself—can be a more important goal than might be the case in more standardized commercial office and retail settings.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recognized these challenges with the development of two sets of codes: NFPA 909, Protection of Cultural Resource Properties—Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship, and NFPA 914, Fire Protection of Historic Structures. Fire-protection professionals say such performance-based guidelines recognize that plans for these applications need to look beyond typical protection goals.

“You look at codes and standards, and the primary objective is always life safety,” said Nick Artim, member of the NFPA’s Technical Committee on Cultural Resources and director of the fire-engineering consultancy Heritage Protection Group, Middlebury, Vt. “The main key is to get occupants to a point of safety. Standards often have very little concern with the building.”

However, with museums and other cultural structures, the building can become an additional primary concern.

“The world’s heritage is in these buildings,” he said. “Also, quite often, the buildings themselves are world heritage sites.”

[SB]As an example, he cited one of the signature structures for which he’s aided in the fire-protection planning: Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home.

“That building is an artifact,” he said.

Analyzing the risk

For Deborah Freeland, area senior vice president with corporate insurance and risk-management company Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., Washington, D.C., planning for fire protection in a museum begins with understanding the facility’s collection—in terms of protection priorities and the specific fire risks it might present.

“The first thing is going to be the valuations,” Freeland said. “Any one piece can be worth millions.”

Also, the general categories of collections must be studied to understand how a potential fire might start and grow. For example, oil paintings burn differently than tapestries or taxidermy specimens.

“People often forget to ask, ‘What are your collections comprised of?’ and that’s the question people need to ask first,” she said. “If you have taxidermy collections or dioramas, you could get a slow, smoldering fire with a very different profile than, say, a plastic sculpture you might find in a modern art museum.”

Similarly, risk profiles can vary throughout a facility. An open gallery, with paintings spread widely throughout a marble-­floored space might feature low levels of “combustible loading,” or density of flammable material. A storage area with paintings or other flammable artworks stacked closely together could pose a much greater risk.

“Don’t forget, where things are stored, you got a lot of packaging material, too,” Freeland said. 

That material can either accelerate or slow a fire’s progress.

Artim agreed that getting an understanding of the collection and how it is housed is a critical first step in the planning process. He added that learning how staff members and visitors interact with a facility can be equally important.

“You can never come into these buildings with an attitude of, ‘Here’s your solution. What’s your problem?’” he said, emphasizing that success will be based on truly understanding the client and how they use their space. “Some people completely fail, because they don’t want to take the time to understand the client.”

Understanding the options

The initial time taken to appreciate a museum’s space, collection and usage can make decisions regarding sensing, signaling and suppression products and systems easier. However, one of the most basic questions, whether to opt for smoke- or heat-based sensing, likely will be fairly obvious, according to Maria Marks, national business development manager for fire products at Siemens Building Technologies, Washington, D.C.

“You’re probably going to be using a smoke sensor, as you will want the earliest detection possible,” she said. “You’re going to get smoke before you get heat.”

Today’s most advanced devices combine heat and smoke detection in multicriteria designs that incorporate air sensors that can pick up extremely small amounts of smoke or carbon monoxide, along with thermal and photoelectric sensing to either boost sensitivity or limit false alarms. Additionally, beam detectors can be useful for spotting the presence of smoke in wide-open spaces, such as the multistory atriums popular with many leading museum architects. Aspirating products, which draw air into a chamber for laser-based analysis and smoke detection, are yet another high-tech option.


“You’re doing the building that’s on the back of the nickel. I didn’t want the ghost of Thomas Jefferson coming back and yelling at me.”
—Nick Artim, Heritage Protection Group


However, determining where these sophisticated devices should be located in museum entries, galleries and other spaces can require some work, along with a full understanding of the range of uses a given space might be called on to serve.

For example, one of the primary requirements of many museums is an ability to shape-shift as exhibits come and go. So, walls may go up or down, and large sculptures might create obstructions that fire-protection designers never considered in their initial plans.

“Your design aesthetic is always a little more difficult in a museum,” Marks said. “What happens if they decide to install a large sculpture going up several levels, and you’re trying to do beam detection?”

ECs should understand whether gallery space might be reorganized for future exhibit changes. If so, fire-protection wiring plans need to be accurate and clearly labeled to minimize future confusion.

“Documentation is really key when it comes to museums,” she said. “You need to know where the circuits are running and how to get to them.”

Marks also noted the importance of flexibility in wiring design, if temporary exhibits are a part of the client’s program. 

“Think of it as a movie set or a room within a room,” she said.

Sensor placement is only the first step in the design process. Similar attention also is required in determining appropriate sensitivity settings for detection devices.

According to Rodger Reiswig, director of industry relations for Tyco Fire Protection Products, Lansdale, Pa., museum sensors are generally set to be more sensitive than devices used in a dormitory or near an office break room, where cooking might occur. That sensitivity might be programmed to shift over the course of a day.

“Museums become more likely to have a fire event after hours, so I want to make sure I learn about it really quickly,” he said.

Similarly, high-value, low-occupancy vault areas might feature high-sensitivity sensors. Post-installation adjustments can fine-tune sensor activity, as staff members learn how systems will respond during day-to-day activity.

“We want to make them as sensitive as we can, without causing false alarms,” Reiswig said.

Protecting history’s treasures for the future

Perhaps the most important differentiating factor of museums is how distinct each can be from another. As a result, these projects require electrical contractors that are comfortable with detail and open to team participation.

“We’re at one stage in world history. These properties will be around for a long time,” Artim said.

He also noted the importance of all project members considering themselves as stakeholders in a community focused on long-term preservation. This point was made especially clear to him during work at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Va.

“You’re doing the building that’s on the back of the nickel,” he said. “I didn’t want the ghost of Thomas Jefferson coming back and yelling at me.”

This recognition gave him pause and made him even more vigilant as he considered the potentially paranormal consequences of any fire-protection misstep.

About The Author

ROSS has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for more than 25 years. Contact him at [email protected].






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