Collaboration is the key to securing a good – and safe – future for our built heritage


At the RIBA we have been considering the lessons of the recent fire at Notre Dame in Paris. One of the Institute’s most active Expert Groups is our Conservation Group, and I’m indebted to its chair Fiona Raley; Artemis Sofokleous, RIBA Specialist Registrar and Carys Rowlands, RIBA Head of Professional Standards, for their work in setting out the challenges and opportunities that emerge as a consequence. With the (second) devastation of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1909 landmark fresh in people’s minds, the huge tragedy for culture and heritage in Paris demanded a swift response.

With much of the art collection at Notre Dame having been salvaged and moved to the Louvre, together with the care being taken to protect the stained glass, it is encouraging to see that some lessons have been learned from previous fires and key actions have been put into practice. However, significant questions remain about why these events keep happening and more philosophical debates continue about how to go forward and repair or replace the damaged fabric.

While no official cause has yet been given for the Notre Dame fire, the renovation work has been identified as the “likely” origin [i]. This is no surprise to those familiar with the Cutty Sark and Windsor Castle fires, both caused by incidents during restoration.

The first key consideration for fire prevention in historic buildings is the skills and expertise of the people involved in the work. Particularly for a building of such cultural and spiritual significance as Notre Dame, it is essential to use highly trained professionals with relevant and extensive expertise, such as those who are assessed and accredited against international standards [ii] as Conservation Architects and Specialist Conservation Architects.

Such professionals, having dealt with the aftermath of devastating fires in York Minster and Windsor Castle, have a deep understanding and knowledge of appropriate conservation practices and philosophies and are aware of the need for fire prevention measures during renovation as well as the opportunity renovation works themselves provide for improving a building’s fire protection.

Practical steps for the protection of historic buildings from fire damage are, broadly: prevention of fire ignition and prevention of fire spread. Prevention of ignition involves: using suitably qualified professionals to carry out fire risk assessments; minimising the risks of arson; regularly testing electrical equipment in the building; avoiding or limiting open flames; and avoiding or limiting hot works during renovation – such as welding, riveting and flame cutting. Prevention of fire spread involves: providing compartmentation, including fire curtains or partitions in roof spaces; introducing detection systems, such as an unobtrusive VESPA system; and developing a disaster management plan, in collaboration with the fire brigade [iii].

The fire gives pause to reflect on what else may have occurred to undermine or damage heritage fabric such as water damage, exposure to the elements and structural undermining. At the Forbidden City in Beijing on a recent RIBA visit, I was struck by the extent of environmental damage to Ming Dynasty marble balustrades.

But the aftermath is a time when architects naturally collaborate with crafts specialists, conservators and archaeologists as well as the fire safety organisations, insurers, loss adjusters and clients to establish a strategy to move forward – a programme, funding, consents to dismantle, temporary interventions that may be required prior to the intricate and forensic assessment of the damage and the implications to the fabric.

The development of a strategy will necessarily involve a more philosophical debate, in which conservation architects are well-versed, regarding whether to restore like-for-like or whether to take a new approach – “… ‘scholarly fancy’ or consolidation and painstaking restoration of missing parts?” [iv].

While the damage to Notre Dame is clearly a national tragedy for France, there has rightly been a global response to its restoration and the RIBA and its membership are on hand to help wherever they can.

Beyond the question of funding, the project will demand a breadth and depth of expertise – from masons and carpenters to conservators, architects and engineers. It is an opportunity for both French and international talent, as the competition for ideas for the Flèche already demonstrates.

The opportunities this work could provide both for public engagement and for training and sharing experience and knowledge will also be enormous. Our European Gothic Heritage derives from the medieval masons who designed and built cathedrals, travelling widely in Europe to exchange ideas and techniques. The fire at Notre Dame will stimulate international exchange of ideas and skills, leading to new national and international initiatives to develop and maintain essential skills. The RIBA, and Conservation Group and our network of specialists will be looking to collaborate to secure a good – and safe – future for our built heritage.

[i] Notre-Dame fire | How to protect historic buildings during renovations

[ii] The ICOMOS guidelines.

[iii] CFPA EUROPE Managing fire safety in historic buildings Guidelines No 30:2013 F :

[iv] Daniel Reiff. “Viollet le Duc and Historic Restoration: The West Portals of Notre-Dame.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. 30: 1 (Mar., 1971): 17-30

Content written by Benjamin Derbyshire, President, RIBA and Chair, HTA Design LLP. This post is part of a series penned by leading figures from across construction, architecture, design and retail in recognition of our Centenary Year.