Is cultural heritage compatible with coffee machines? The TU Delft faculty of Architecture fire case study

TU-Delft The combination of a coffee machine and a broken water pipe led to the destruction of the TU Delft faculty of Architecture, containing one of the world’s finest architectural libraries and a collection of furniture models by Rietveld, Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos, etc.

In particular the fire on May 13, 2008 began at approximately 9:00am when a water leak caused a coffee vending machine, located at the 6th floor of the  southwest wing, to spark, smoke, then finally flame. The building did not have fire sprinklers, but firewalls divided it  into three compartments. Such walls  revealed to be not effective in confining the fire to the compartment of origin.  All building occupants were evacuated safely, but  the fire spread has severely impacted firefighting  operations. As a consequence, the fire has burnt uncontrolled for hours, causing the structural collapse of an important section of the building. In fact, the northwest wing collapsed at 4:40 pm (some  7.5 hours after the first flames were observed) .The damages revealed to be so severe  the building had to be demolished.

West Elevation at 2:35 pm – From West Collapse investigation of the TU Delft faculty of architecture building : preliminary evaluation of member capacities – Elevation at 2:35 pm- Adam Jess Kirk 2010

Luckily firefighters were able to save historic models and books from the library but the building itself was lost with its content, a loss for culture and heritage anyway.

An interesting thesis by Dr Adam Jess Kirk concerning the analysis of the  the building and fire together with an overview of available methods for calculating the ultimate strength of reinforced concrete members at elevated temperatures has been published by the University of Texas at Austin.  In the document a preliminary models of the fire have been also developed and applied to selected structural elements.

Is restoration the biggest treat for the built heritage?

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The fire of La Fenice theater in Venezia, the Guerini chapel in Torino as many other terrible damage to the World Heritage, are related to restoration works. There is the urgent need of going deeper in the study of fire safety during restoration of the built heritage as we cannot afford anymore the risk of destroying what we are going to restore.

The technical approach may not be sufficient as the problem is deeply related with irrational human behavior but the complexity of the problem is not a good reason for delaying a common effort in finding a solution. Any contribution of any kind on this sensitive topic is welcome.

FSE and heritage buildings

Fire Safety Engineering is the most powerful tool for assessing fire risk in heritage, historical or cultural buildings. Using techniques of performance based approach to solve the problems of protecting cultural and historical buildings from fire at the moment it’s the only possible way that allows to match safety needs with conservation issues.

Current prescriptive approach, infact, does not allow to address to the extremely various problems that safety consultants have to face in protecting from fire.

Currently, there aren’t many studies about the use of Fire Safety Engineering in cultural or heritage buildings protection. Are worth to be cited the Cost C 17 Action “Fire Loss to Built Heritage”, an activity funded by the European Science Foundation which ended its work in 2006 (whose paper are widely published in this site) and the activity of NFPA, which has published and keep updated two important standards: 909 (Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties – Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship) and 914 (Code for Fire Protection in Historic Structures). Continue reading “FSE and heritage buildings”