Why are so many landmark historic buildings lost to fire?

It was a landmark property occupying a prime city centre location until a devastating fire reduced it to little more than its sandstone facade.

Firefighters battle to contain the fire that destroyed the Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art in June. Picture: John Devlin

Recent events in Belfast, which saw the historic Bank Buildings go up in flames, bore more than a resemblance to the blaze which gutted the Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art in June.

The intensity of the fire, the shocked public reaction, and a safety cordon erected around the charred remains.

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Now fire experts at a Scottish university have pointed to the “uncanny similarities” between the blazes in Glasgow, Belfast, and at the former Littlewoods building in Liverpool which was damaged last week.

The historic five-storey Bank Buildings in Belfast city centre, where a major blaze broke out in the Primark store last month. Picture: PA

In each case, heritage properties under refurbishment - or due to be redeveloped - suffered catastrophic damage sufficient to lead to doubt about the ability to save and preserve them.

Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) highlighted that such long-standing buildings have a high fire-load - meaning they were originally with great quantities of timber and other flammable materials.

Such historic buildings were also typically built with voids and cavities in walls, floors and ceilings that allow fire to spread unseen within the structure.

In the past, fire and building regulations were very different and lacked the current increased understanding of fire engineering.

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Some of the fire locations, including the historic 1930s art-deco Littlewoods building in Liverpool, had been empty for a number of years.

Professor Billy Hare, deputy-director of GCU’s built environment and asset management (BEAM) centre, said: “The causes and lessons from this spate of fires will only be reached after careful investigation by the experts on the ground.

“But it’s clear that buildings left empty for considerable periods can often be at risk. There may be an accumulation of rubbish and debris which is an excellent ‘fuel’ source for fire.

“It may also be that unauthorised people can get access to the building and either intentionally or unintentionally create fire hazards.”

The BEAM Centre experts also point to the raised level of risk in buildings undergoing large-scale restoration, as in the case of the Primark store in Belfast, housed within the historic Bank buildings dating back to the late 18th century.

They say building refurbishment presents risks associated with ‘hot works’ involving naked flames, sparks and high temperatures. These are usually well managed by contractors but work smouldering overnight might be missed.

Buildings located in city centres are also sometimes more likely to face risks from stray cigarette butts or criminal action such as wilful fire-raising.

Glasgow was dubbed “Tinbderbox City” by the press in the 1960s following two devastating fires which destroyed a whisky bond and a factory, killing 41 people.

Major blazes in the 21st century include the destruction of three nightclubs - all within a mile of Glasgow School of Art.

The most recent incident saw an entire tenement block in Sauchiehall Street demolished following a fire in the Victoria’s nightclub in March this year.

Paul Sweeney, MP for Glasgow North West, said the city urgently needed a comprehensive strategy for preserving its ageing stock of Victorian architecture.

“A lot of the Victorian stock is extremely vulnerable to fire, but there hasn’t been a proper survey,” he told The Guardian in June.

“No one envisaged the art school going on fire until 2014. Are we even aware of the scale of the problem?”