AFTER the devastating fire which decimated a cluster of historic buildings in Edinburgh’s Old Town, the urgent question of whether we should fireproof our old buildings has never been more pertinent.
The Cowgate buildings, some of which are listed and date back to the 1790s, form part of a World Heritage Site. With many others falling into the same category some might think it’s time the city invested in its heritage by installing state-of-the-art fire defences.
But it appears that the whole system of deciding which places should be fire-proofed and how is more complex and convoluted than the warren of the Cowgate.
For a start, certain premises are required by law to have a fire certificate. To gain this they have to meet standards stipulated by the Fire Brigade. But private dwellings do not fall under the legislation.
Meanwhile, modern building requirements stipulate integration of fire protection measures. As far as the design and structure of buildings is concerned, the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations 1963 incorporate fire safety standards such as structural fire precautions and means of escape.
However, when it comes to buildings constructed before 1963, there is no legal requirement to upgrade their fire precautions to modern-day standards.
And, while the city council can enforce the regulations where the premises require a public entertainment licence in order to protect the safety of occupants, neither it, the Fire Brigade nor the Government have powers to force private dwellings to meet any fire precaution standard.
So, a house built as recently as 1962 - never mind 1792 - could have little in the way of fire protection.
Sean O’Reilly, director of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS), admits it’s a complex situation that needs to be simplified if Edinburgh’s heritage - and the lives of those who live in older buildings - is not to be lost.
"There’s been a lot of research and paperwork produced on these issues over the last few years. It’s very clear that you can have a variety of different levels of protection, but the primary issue is to have management procedures in place that can deal with fire. In a complex situation where there are a large number of subdivided properties - such as in the area down by South Bridge - ideally, you’re going to have very full fire protection measures in place. Where you have very sensitive historic properties, you must balance this against the amount of damage putting those [safety measures] in would cause to the historic property.
"The more sophisticated the property, the more expensive the procedures become. It’s very much a balance between these concerns - obviously prioritising safety, but also bringing on board the issues of preserving historic buildings."
That, of course, is another argument. Should the look of an old building be more important than safety?
Mr O’Reilly adds: "Putting them in place so they aren’t very evident could mean damage to the historic fabric. If you were putting in fire systems under floorboards, behind timber or changing doors, you can significantly change the character of the fabric.
"However, precautions can be as simple as having fire extinguishers to hand and having means of access out of the building in emergency in place. At the other end of the scale, the most sophisticated systems that wouldn’t affect the appearance can be very expensive. You could be talking
thousands if you’re putting in sprinkler
So then, it would appear obvious that in place of the devastated area should be built a new, modern structure, rather than trying to re-build the old with all the problems for fire safety that would ensure.
Mr O’Reilly says: "With the unique structure of multi-street levels on the Cowgate, Guthrie Street and above on South Bridge and Chambers Street, once you’re building tall - there are seven-storey buildings there - fire becomes much more of an issue. It’ll effectively be a new-build, regardless of what it actually looks like, so there will be full fire controls."
But he adds: "I don’t think any system would necessarily be foolproof. You would have to have management procedures in place to minimise the problems, but I don’t think you could ever fully eliminate these sort of dangers."
One historic place which managed to install state-of-the-art fire defences after a blaze is Windsor Castle.
When it underwent large-scale refurbishments amounting to a staggering 37 million after the massive fire of November 1992 which ripped through the private chapel and more than 100 rooms, destroying one fifth of the castle, fireproofing was top of the agenda.
Designed to blend discreetly into the historical architecture, the new fire detection system is based on high-sensitivity smoke detectors which use an internal laser to count and assess airborne particles, as well as other smoke and heat detectors, providing early warning of the first signs of fire.
Mr O’Reilly says such a level would not be practicable for most of the buildings of the Old Town.
"That’s the kind of thing you put in major public buildings. What you’re looking for in properties like these is something much more efficient in terms of cost-effectiveness, and simply fire control mechanisms rather than anything more sophisticated."
Other older buildings in Edinburgh have already faced up to the problem. Sophisticated, heat-activated sprinkler systems were installed in Parliament House and Parliament Square in the late Nineties and at the Services Museum at Edinburgh Castle within the last two years.
Audrey Dakin, a conservation architect with Historic Scotland, explains: "It’s quite a difficult thing to install and it has to be done with great care, but, nonetheless, they do mean that you can potentially stop a fire before it becomes serious.
"Two things need to be brought together to argue the case for a sprinkler system: if the building was deemed to be of sufficient merit to warrant it and if you’ve got a building where it can be installed without causing too much damage to the fabric.
"But there are other measures you can take at a lower level in order to control the spread of fire: improving compartmentation - physically changing the building so that a fire doesn’t get beyond a certain area of a building - and improving fire detection."
In Parliament House, the sprinkler system has been concealed behind cornices, while at Duff House in Morayshire - an outpost of the National Galleries of Scotland - work was required beneath the floor and in the ceiling.
Cameron McKenzie, assistant
divisional officer at the fire safety department of Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade, says the issue is not as simple as fireproofing the whole of the Old Town.
"Fire precautions range right across the board from something as simple as having a fire extinguisher in your flat to sophisticated fire precautions within a hotel," he explains.
As the statutory authority on all fire precautions, the city council’s building control department is responsible for decisions
regarding the design of, and alterations to, buildings, including any major fire defence measures.
For smaller measures, such as fire doors, fire-resistant glazes, smoke detection, fire warning systems and the provision of fire extinguishers, the Fire Brigade can advise on the appropriate changes required for a fire certificate to be issued in the case of non-domestic premises.
Mr McKenzie says: "The Fire Precautions Act of 1971 sets out certain requirements for a fire certificate pertaining to certain uses of occupancy, ranging from offices, shops, factories, hotels, boarding houses and railway premises. Private dwellings fall outwith the remit of fire authorities; we simply give advice to our community safety department for these. Unlike offices and shops, we have no statutory right to enforce fire precautions in private homes.
"The fire department would support any improvements in fire precautionary measures within any building, but we would take each building on its own merits. Decisions would have to be taken in conjunction with our partners at Building Control and conservation societies."
As for the issue of how much it would cost to fireproof many of our old buildings, Mr McKenzie says it is impossible to estimate, as every building has to be looked at individually.
Regarding the buildings affected by the Cowgate fire, he says: "Old buildings don’t have the level of fire protection that a new-build would have. Some of these buildings are 150 to 200 years old. It’s very difficult to introduce measures that are commensurate with today’s standards."
Fire expert Ralph Stahl, who runs RS Fire Protection in north Gyle, says the labyrinthine layout of the Cowgate and the levels above makes it difficult to install fire protection measures and extremely difficult to tackle fires.
"That whole block was a real mish-mash," he explains. "It wasn’t just one big block; there’s so many different levels and alcoves. The single biggest problem is there’s so many different owners of these buildings and there isn’t a single fire plan. The cost is massive for putting sprinkler systems in these places."
It seems, then, that while businesses and residents in the Old Town might now be panicking about installing fireproofing, it might not be as easy as they’d like. In fact, they might not be able to do it at all if the conservation lobby gets into full swing.
All of which again points to the fact that it would make more sense to construct a brand new set of buildings from the Cowgate to South Bridge - and fill them with systems which will ensure they won’t burn down in the future.
Winter water warning for Scots public
A WINTER warning about the dangers of canals and rivers was issued today.
British Waterways Scotland said people should be very wary about venturing near water during snowy or icy conditions, especially if accompanied by children or dogs.
The organisation, which has responsibility for the Union Canal and Forth & Clyde Canal, warned that canal or lock edges, or banking may be slippery.
A spokeswoman said: "An iced-over canal or pond may look like a tempting play area, but the ice is usually very thin and it’s impossible to tell how deep the freezing cold water is below the surface.
"No-one should step on to frozen water under any circumstances."
Richard Millar, waterway manager of the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, said: "Like any other water space, it only needs a really thin, uneven layer of ice before people think it’s OK to step on. It’s vital that people don't risk their lives in this way.
"They should never let dogs or children play on or anywhere near the edge of the canal. Canals can be quite beautiful to look at in frosty conditions and a winter walk along the towpath can be a truly enjoyable and bracing experience. But we want everyone to be safe - and not sorry - on their visit to canals during the winter months."
Teenager proves equal to the task
A TALENTED Capital high school pupil has beaten thousands of teenagers to win a national award for artistic merit.
A poster on the theme of "equality" designed by Steven Noble, 14, was judged as the best entry in a competition open to everyone enrolled in modern studies Standard Grade courses across Scotland.
The third-year Wester Hailes Education Centre pupil impressed judges with the "simple but striking way in which a difficult concept was represented on paper".
Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning Minister Iain Gray recognised the achievement during a ceremony at the school.
Prisoner in razor attack
A PRISONER was an inch from death when his cell-mate slashed his throat, a court has heard.
Steven Lees, 34, told how he had begged for a move to another cell just hours before he woke in terror with blood pouring from a gash in his neck.
Yesterday, attacker Steven Millar, 25, who said he objected to his victim’s dreams, was sent to the State Hospital, Carstairs, after a jury decided he was insane at the time of the assault.
Lees told the High Court in Edinburgh he asked for a move after a conversation with Millar in the remand wing of the city’s Saughton jail.
Doctors in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary found a ten-centimetre wound on the right side of Lees’ neck. If it had been two to three centimetres deeper, his main jugular vein would have been severed, with possibly fatal consequences.
Millar, 25, from Murrayburn Gardens, Wester Hailes, later said he had launched his attack with a home-made razor after tuning in to Lees’ dreams.
Coffee pot goes under hammer
A SILVER coffee pot made by a renowned city silversmith in the early 19th century has come up for auction.
The Georgian coffee pot dates from 1821 and was the work of George McHattie in Edinburgh.
It has been hallmarked with his initials, GMH.
The coffee pot, which is ten inches high and nine inches wide, features a rare detachable silver ring used for muslin bag coffee filters, as well as an image of King George IV’s head to show that duty had been paid on the product.
The current owner of the piece lives in northern California and is hoping to sell the coffee pot for more than 1500 on the internet site eBay.