Construction Risks in Renovating Historic Buildings

09 May 2019

Read how the devastating Notre Dame Cathedral blaze highlights issues faced by renovation contractors

As night fell on Monday 15 April 2019, crowds of Parisians looked on aghast as a huge fire raged through the world–famous Notre Dame Cathedral. The inferno had triggered alarms at 6.20pm, as worshippers celebrated an early evening mass. It consumed two thirds of the heavy wooden beams supporting the roof of the 12th century landmark, and caused its main spire to collapse.

Fortunately, no lives were lost. But priceless relics, including what is said to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ, were put at risk during the 15-hour blaze.

Additionally, many paintings housed in the cathedral were put in danger of smoke and water damage.

The fire is believed to have originated within the renovation works of the building. The 10-year, EUR 100million restoration programme had commenced in 2018.

At the time of writing, some EUR 900million has been pledged to fund the reconstruction works for Notre Dame Cathedral. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has vowed that it will be rebuilt within five years.

Fire damage and famous historic buildings

The Notre Dame inferno bears similarities to fires that caused significant damage to heritage properties in the UK.

York Minister, 1984: About £2.25million worth of damage was caused to the Minster’s south transept when a freak lightning bolt hit a metal electrical box in its roof. A total of 114 firefighters tackled the resulting blaze, which destroyed the building’s roof. The damage took four years to repair.

Construction-Risks-in-Renovating-Historic-Buildings_1Hampton Court Palace, 1986: On 31 March, Lady Daphne Gale, the 86-year-old widow of D-Day airborne forces commander, General Sir Richard Gale, died in a fire that started in the Tudor palace’s state apartments. About 125 fire fighters rushed to the blaze, which caused roofs and floors to cave in, sending debris crashing through rooms occupied by elderly residents. Reinstatement costs, according to Hansard, amounted to £5million.

Windsor Castle, 1992: The world’s largest inhabited castle – and one of the Queen’s official residences – lost a total of 115 rooms when a curtain was set alight by a faulty spotlight. A major part of the state apartments were soon ablaze, and the roof of St George’s Hall collapsed, as did the floors of the Brunswick Tower. The fire caused massive structural damage, and restoration work cost £36.5 million. It was completed on 20 November 1997, five years to the day after the outbreak of the fire.

Glasgow School of Art, 2014 and 2018: In summer 2018, a huge blaze devastated the building during the final stages of a £36million restoration project, following a major fire four years earlier.

A Scottish parliamentary committee report concluded that, before the 2014 incident, the art school had neglected to address the heightened risk of fire to the Mackintosh Building, or to carry out adequate risk assessments.

Following the 2018 disaster, Stephen MacKenzie, a fire, security and resilience advisor, told Scottish parliamentarians that he was “incredibly puzzled” as to why a mist suppression system that survived the first fire was ripped out and had not been replaced.

Experts say the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed building is beyond repair. The cost of a rebuild is estimated at £100million.

What renovation contractors need to know about the Notre Dame fire

The blaze has spotlighted the crucial role of risk management when conserving and renovating historic buildings. It also highlights noteworthy aspects of contracts and insurances related to such works.

Risk management: Installing and maintaining appropriate risk management is of heightened importance during renovation works, due to the surrounding risks in an existing building. The lack of sprinkler systems in many historic buildings mean that it’s important to ensure alternative active fire protection is put in place, such as protecting wooden structural elements from fire exposure.

Code of practice: The Joint Code of Practice for Fire Prevention on Construction Sites is a mandatory requirement under standard form JCT building contracts for “large” (with a contract value in excess of GBP 20m) projects and advisable for other projects.

Both employer and contractor are required to comply with the Code, which stipulates remedial measures that have to be carried out to ensure fire protection during ongoing construction works. While being contractually required, this is also an additional way to monitor fire risk management, and can provide a structure to help ensure the safety of the renovation works.

Construction-Risks-in-Renovating-Historic-Buildings_2Fires can often be prevented by taking simple precautions, and the Code incorporates these measures.

It is key to ascertain whether your construction insurances set a condition precedent with regards to adhering to the Joint Code and whether cover would be voided should non-compliance occur. This is something that your broker can assist with.

Contractual considerations: Contracts used in conservation and renovation works differ to those used in new build projects. Companies involved in restoring historic buildings need to be clear about these differences and seek advice on how their insurances are affected.

Under common UK building contracts such as JCT, there are standardised insurance provisions that cater for these forms of works however, with fluid insurance market conditions, the default provisions aren’t always commercially obtainable.

As an example, Schedule 3 of a JCT Design and Build Contract offers three separate insurance options and we would expect most developers and project managers to opt for Option C (Joint Names Insurance by the Employer of Existing Structures and Works in or Extensions to them) when working on a retained or existing building.

Appetite from construction insurers to afford cover for retained buildings has traditionally been severely limited and is the case to an increasing degree currently. Project managers and developers should discuss alternative more commercially viable options with their broker.

Construction insurance: The underlying consideration when carrying out renovation works in a historic building is ensuring that the correct insurance is in place to protect you should a fire occur. Although there are various precautionary measures that can be applied to the construction works, a key part of risk management is the insurance in place to protect the structure.

Historic buildings are valued and it’s tragic to see a fire such as Notre Dame, however if these incidents do occur, it’s important to be able to rely on the correct insurance.

How to find the right construction insurance for renovation works

Conservation and renovation works come with a complex array of risk, insurance and contractual issues. By teaming with specialist construction insurance brokers, contractors benefit from the advice of industry experts who have an in-depth knowledge of the risks, along with good relationships with relevant insurers.

The role of your construction broker is to make the risk as attractive as possible to underwriters. By doing this, they obtain the widest possible cover at the best price.

Make construction insurance and risk management work harder for your company