Historic Preservation

Fire loss control for modern buildings typically focuses on preserving the structure and its contents for their useful life, an objective that implicitly recognizes demolition as a natural part of the property’s life cycle. Preservationists, on the other hand, perceive their mission as preserving historic buildings in perpetuity, a mission that dictates a radically different view of fire protection. 


  • Preservation Goals. For a curator of an historic building the overriding objective is conservation, the process of maintaining the property in its original condition as nearly as possible. Other forms of historic preservation include restoration, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse. An historic structure exists as an artifact or visual record of architectural or historical significance. If the building is destroyed, this function ceases to exist. An uncontrolled fire, no matter how small, is unacceptable if it can do irreparable damage to historic fabric.
  • Fire Safety Goals. Life safety and preservation of property are primary goals of any fire protection program. Providing fire safety in historic properties differs fundamentally from protecting modern structures. These differences derive from the nature of the properties themselves and achieving the fundamental purpose of historic preservation.
  • Common Goal. Fire safety and historic preservation share the common goal to prevent the damage or destruction of historic structures. Conflicts arise between code requirements for life safety, and preservation standards that discourage alteration of historic structures. Rigid or indiscriminate application of building codes to meet fire safety regulations can compromise or alter important architectural features of historic buildings.
  • Complex Issues. Fire safety science and engineering have the most impact when conflicts occur with traditional fire safety measures imposed by regulations. Fire safety in historic buildings is one such area. It is a unique worldwide problem with little guidance for scientific solutions and a problem of increasing relevance as the buildings in our world become older and of greater historical importance. A logical and systematic approach to the assessment of fire safety is needed in historic buildings. It must reveal alternative methods of achieving adequate, appropriate, and cost-effective fire protection while preserving the character of the building with sensitivity, awareness, and appreciation of significant architectural and historic features.

The Fire Safety Institute is active in the development of creative solutions that meet fire and life safety objectives without compromising the historic or architectural significance of a building. This involves fire safety evaluation methods that can optimize protection for people and artifacts under the constraints of minimizing residual fire risk and minimizing intrusion on historic authenticity.

The Director, participates actively in numerous organizations that deal with the issues of fire safety for our cultural heritage.

  • APT – Association for Preservation Technology International, Code Committee
  • CIB – International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction – Working Commission W014 – Fire, Subgroup on Historic Buildings.
  • NFPA – National Fire Protection Association, Technical Committee on Protection of Cultural Resources, for which he has served as chair of the Committee.
  • NTHP – National Trust for Historic Preservation

Fire Safe Building Rehabilitation is a new book available from the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association). Director, Jack Watts collaborated with preservation architect Marilyn Kaplan to compile basic information on issues associated with protecting our built heritage from fire. The book takes the reader from basic conservation concepts through the technical aspects of current fire safety practice. It bridges the gap between the societal goals of historic preservation and safety from fire and emphasizes their mutual intersection. Although focus is on the situation in the US, the problems are universal and the technical solutions are germane throughout the world.