Sites for Sore Eyes: Fire damage and prevention for historic buildings

18.9.23 3 MINUTE READ

Image of building on fire

Principal Heritage Consultant, Daniele Haynes, explores historic buildings and the impact fire damage can have in her latest blog.

The recent incident at The Crooked House pub captured the Nation’s attention and highlighted the damage that fire can pose to our treasured buildings. Unfortunately, The Crooked House was not listed and had no statutory protection. But what can be done to protect listed historic buildings from fire?

There are numerous examples of listed buildings that have been severely damaged by fire, including the Grade II Listed Railway Cottages in Havant (December 2018), at the Grade II* Claremont Hotel in Eastbourne (November 2020), the Grade II Listed Clifton House in Clifton (March 2021) and the Grade II Henderson Old Hall, Newcastle (June 2023).

Following the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 and the subsequent Bailey Report, there have been numerous studies and resources discussing fire prevention in listed buildings. These can range from passive fire protection measures such as compartmentalization of the building to limit a fire’s spread, to more active interventions such as securing a building when it is not occupied, to deter arsonists. The installation of fire detection equipment and alarms is another preventative measure and recent advances in the technology means a fire can be detected in its early stages.

Nevertheless, fire remains a real threat to listed buildings with research indicating that there were 405 fire and rescue incidents involving listed buildings in 2019 alone.[1] There are a number of causes including faulty electricals, and the damage caused to the building can occur not only due to fire itself and associated smoke damage, but also result from the extinguishing methods. But, despite this, a conflict still exists between installing fire prevention measures and the fear that they will have an irreparable impact upon a listed building’s special heritage interest. Funding can also be a further barrier.

So what do you do if the worst happens and there is a fire at your listed property?

Once under control, the site of the fire may be treated as a potential crime scene until the cause of the incident can be established. An investigation may be needed and incident reports from the emergency services who responded to the fire should be included in this. During this time access to the building may also be limited.

It is important to inform not only your insurance company but also both the Local Planning Authority and Historic England of the fire as soon as possible. The Local Planning Authority will be able to provide you with advice and guidance, and keeping them informed will likely make the process of seeking Listed Building Consent for repairs much smoother. For more extensive fires it would be beneficial to consider commissioning a Historic Building Surveyor to understand the extent of the damage. Hiring an independent specialist would help clarify the level of repair works needed, not only for your discussions with heritage authorities, but also to provide detail in your discussion with your insurers.

Measures to limit further water penetration and improve ventilation and drying should also be considered if safe to do so. This can be as simple as clearing debris from gutters and air bricks as well as removing saturated furniture. Doing so will reduce damage caused by water and the formation of rot.

Any works to repair, restore or, in rare circumstances, demolish a listed building will most likely need consent from the local authority, in order to ensure that the work will maintain the special interest of the building. The Local Planning Authority should be contacted to determine if formal consent is needed for the work or if it would be considered a ‘repair’. Total demolition would only be approved if there was no other alternative, and it’s more likely that a case is made by the authorities for the building’s reconstruction.

Fire prevention measures and repair works will need professional input and approval from the Local Planning Authority

Although fire prevention measures and repair works following a fire will both need professional input and approval from the Local Planning Authority, the former is key to protecting both these valuable national assets and the lives of people who use them. Therefore, Fire Protection needs to be a key consideration in the occupation and maintenance of listed buildings. As they say, prevention is better than the cure.


[1] Harris, C. (Feb 2021). England's Cultural Heritage still at risk 30 years on. International Fire Professional(35), 20 -24.


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Daniele Haynes

Associate, Heritage & Conservation

A heritage consultant with a passion for setting.

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