On 4 April 1881 Lanhydrock House, the most impressive mansion in south-west England, caught fire (above). Lord Robartes immediately commissioned the architect Richard Coad to refurbish the house as an ‘unpretentious’ family residence. In doing so he incorporated the latest in Victorian fire prevention solutions, most notably 300mm thick concrete ceilings supplied by Dennett and Ingles of London to stop the spread of fire between floors, patent fireproof plaster, structural ironwork to hold these great loads in place and an internal fire hydrant system drawing on 200,000 gallons of water stored in a reservoir in the High Gardens. Despite the employment of high-Victorian technologies Lord Robartes curiously did not consider gas lighting or electrical power safe and so built a lamp room from which paraffin lamps were wicked and primed.
One hundred and thirty years after the family moved back into the house, and sixty years after the National Trust acquired the property, the Fire Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order was legislated through Parliament. This Act places emphasis on a risk based attitude towards fire assessment, most notably in reducing the possibility of fire starting in the first place or, in the worse-case scenario of fire being confirmed, safeguarding life by providing a safe means of escape and subsequently damage limitation in restricting the spread of fire.
Fire Risk Assessment
In response to the new Act we initiated a detailed risk assessment. On completion we instigated a phased schedule of works to deal with issues identified in the report and to explore varying building solutions to create a sustainable future for Lanhydrock.
Fortunately, the constructional techniques employed by the Victorians gave us a head start. The concrete ceilings, for example, still offer good fire resistance between floors, a methodology known as horizontal compartmentation. Furthermore, the iron fabrication uses little or no timber beneath the floors and in the roof.
The risk assessment however did identify several issues of concern.
The first was the need to repair all pipe-work and cabling breaches between floors and compartments in order to stop any potential fire spreading (below). These breaches varied from small cable routes to gaps that a whole body would pass through with ease. Once done we commissioned an independent specialist to certificate all existing vertical and horizontal compartment walls.
Second, the risk assessment identified the need for two new vertical compartments to be created, one to separate the internationally important 17th-century Gallery from the rest of the house, the other was to create a second protected staircase for means of escape. To do this we had to introduce new bespoke fire doors into the historic interior. However, for certification we had to consider all existing historic doors in these compartments, making sure that they had the correct intumescent and cold smoke seals fitted. Furthermore, to prevent a potential fire spreading through the door frame itself we had to dismantle the door architraves and seal all gaps with intumescent foams and sealants, treat all combustible linings with reversible intumescent varnishes and paints and seal all voids beneath and above the door.
Thirdly, it was vital to separate the high risk areas, such as catering and boiler room, from the historic interiors. As both of these areas contain gas burning equipment we needed to consider gas safety shut off valves, fire shutters activated by the automatic fire alarms, safety of flues removing the products of combustion, flue proving systems and electrical isolating switches.
A fourth element to the project was replacing old unsupported systems hence a new automatic alarm system has been fitted into the property. To create the earliest warning possible the fire alarm specification includes the installation of an intelligent fire panel that feeds addressable information into to localised pagers via a radio link and thence direct to the fire service and monitoring station through protected telephone cables. In addition we have installed six air sampling devices, known as Vesda units, which analyse air patterns and activate pre- and full- alarms on discovery of smoke particles in the air. These pieces of equipment are interfaced into auxillery safety components such as mechanical door contacts, gas leak detection systems, fusible links on boilers and external fire shutter and fire curtain systems.
Statutory Protection and Curatorship
The real challenge of this project has been effecting statutory changes without any noticeable impact on the historic interior. Lanhydrock has maximum statutory protection from central government, it is grade 1 listed by English Heritage, our statutory consultee, which means it is of ‘exceptional architectural and historical interest’ − only 2.5% of listed buildings in Great Britain have grade 1 listed status.
All of the activities mentioned here have, understandably, raised pertinent questions within the National Trust over conservation practice and modern intervention techniques − questions that, for example, examined the longevity, performance and aesthetic appearance of new materials, looked closely at natural and artificial ventilation systems to maintain humidity control throughout the newly created compartments and challenged the potential for physical damage to the same historic interior that we were trying to protect.
Placing such an emphasis on good conservation practices and high curatorial standards means lots of dialogue. One of the real benefits of communication was our ability to thin out the fire risk assessment by looking carefully at the historical layout and operational management of the house. For example, it was initially determined that for continuity the six vertical compartment walls running from the roof structure down through the property would have to be terminated in the tunnels beneath the house. But as a highly protected bat roost this was impractical. So after discussions with our architect and fire specialists we decided that by fire stopping all breaches in the tunnel walls and roof, and by separating the adjoining boiler room from the tunnel with the installation of a bespoke automatic fire curtain, we could treat the tunnel as a single horizontal compartment.
Another thorny issue was dealing with the directive to upgrade a Victorian Drawing Room door with beautiful etched Aesthetic movement-style glass in order to create a 30 minute fire rated door. To do this, either with fire-rated secondary glazing or intumescent varnish, would have essentially destroyed the heritage we were trying to protect. After looking at other solutions, such as, a fire shutter or curtain we came to a pragmatic solution which was to consider the volume of the room in terms of its ability to contain smoke in the barrel-vaulted ceiling thereby facilitating a safe means of escape. Both of these simple solutions saved money, time and, more importantly, unnecessary damage to the historic interiors.
A further challenge, and one I am sure we all share, is how to comply with statutory requirements regarding, for example, emergency lighting, fire signage and self-closing fire doors without compromising the historic integrity of the building. Thankfully, once again, management systems came to our rescue. For emergency lighting the historic lights were deployed using battery packs connected to inverter switches that automatically switched power supplies to battery back-up in the event of mains power failure. This meant that no specific bespoke escape lighting was needed. In order to alleviate the need for excessive signage we operate an evacuation procedure led by volunteer room guides who chaperone visitors from the building to muster points outside while closing fire doors is done manually as part of the evacuation procedure. Solutions, like these, have allowed us to retain the authenticity, appearance and value of Lanhydrock.
This level of preventative fire protection is aspirational for all National Trust properties yet, one element of the Fire Safety Order that we live with daily is our responsibility for record keeping. Maintaining our duty of care for historic buildings means that we need to carry out and record fire alarm and emergency lighting testing, fire evacuation training and certification of fire-fighting water supplies, back-up battery packs, gas boilers, gas supply pipework, fire extinguishers, chimneys that host open fires and electrical installations. Our policy is to install electrical supplies in mineral insulated cables which have higher fire integrity than PVC cabling and a much greater life span. As part of the fire risk assessment the cabling itself is certificated every five years while all appliances such as, computers, printers, vacuum cleaners, kettles &c are tested and certificated annually.
Our fire risk strategy aims for elimination, avoidance or control of risk at source. For this reason halogen lighting is banned in our properties, as is all hot works, although we are now beginning to light open fires but only with stringent risk controls in place such as architect inspection of the chimney’s with fibre-optic cameras, using seasoned logs for burning, having appropriate fire screens and regular chimney sweeping. To add to this list opening the attraction to visitors, filming, housekeeping works, events and managing contractors have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It must be stressed that however good your fire culture lapses will occur − only recently I found logs and cardboard being stored beneath an escape stairway and keeping fire exits clear can be quite a challenge.
Emergency planning is a key part of fire strategy. Plans should take a pragmatic approach to salvage operations not least because we have to be realistic in that we would not be allowed into a potentially burning building without the authority of the fire service. Our role in an emergency is to activate staff to site either from a telephone tree or call out system. Once staff arrive to site we need to monitor and manage arrival, establish an effective command and control structure and establish and equip salvage teams who will stay well out of the way of the fire-fighting operation but be in readiness to spring into action when asked. Our role as curators is to facilitate the progress of the operation by advising on aspects as diverse as room layout, systems infrastructures, priority salvage, storage and care of retrieved items and afterwards deal with site security and inventory checking.
Having been on several fire exercises I have witnessed first-hand how plans can be compromised. One exercise I attended became completely overwhelmed by too much unnecessary radio communication; another took 20 minutes to locate the front door key having to engage in small talk with the fire service whilst the hunt was on. At another a salvage operator severed his thumb with a knife cutting bubble wrap in the dark in order to wrap ceramics – surely a better plan would have been to get the ceramics out first and then protect them.
Working closely with the fire service has allowed us to rehearse our comprehensive emergency procedure plan and look at our infrastructure to support fire and rescue systems, such as, the installation of deep hard-standings in our courtyard to accommodate specialist high-level cranes, rehearsing tunnel rescue and rope techniques and drawing back-up water supplies from the river, one mile away.
Throughout our fire risk assessment project we have made well-informed decisions, based in good practice and on sound research. It was always an aspiration for the project team to maintain meticulous records of the works in order be accountable for the changes we, as custodians, were making to our heritage. Hence, our comprehensive ‘as built’ documents records, both in textual and photographic form, the before and after changes and the logic that we have applied in implementing change.
The proverbial title of this paper ‘Heaven Helps those who Help Themselves’ is drawn from an 1879 copy of a journal called the ‘The Fireman’. It implies that those of us with a duty of care for a house and collection must realise that the effectiveness of any solution will rely on the amount of effort that is put into its preparation. It is a perilous task to forage into the unknown world of endless logistics and permutations, particularly in our hope that such strategies will never be deployed; nevertheless less it is an absolute crucial professional duty.