Balancing Safety, Conservation, and Practicality in Historic Building Refurbishment

Jukka Liikanen

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19 Oct 2023

Refurbishing old buildings can be challenging for fire safety experts, usually due to the conservation status of listed buildings, narrow and dense structures, limited solutions for exit safety and unnoticeable technical installations. The building stock in Finland is still relatively young compared to many other European countries, so the process of refurbishing older buildings is usually similar to that of new buildings.

In a typical refurbishment project, fire safety regulations must be applied thoroughly due to the characteristics or conservation status of the old property. It is often impossible to follow the regulations as they stand but deviating figures always require careful and property-specific consideration. In most cases, however, renovation is carried out under the terms of the building rather than the fire safety regulations, and this is generally accepted practice when the use of the premises is not changed.

Each refurbishment project requires fire safety experts to tailor solutions to the specific features and challenges of the building. The Finnish National Theatre and the University of Helsinki’s main building are examples of projects requiring fire safety solutions that take into account each building’s unique space and structural complexities.

The Finnish National Theatre: Dense Spaces Did Not Prevent Significant Fire Safety Improvements

The first phase of the Finnish National Theatre refurbishment occurred about twenty years ago when the most famous part of the building – the main stage – was renovated. The five-year, second phase of the renovation is now complete, covering about half the theatre's spaces built in the 1930s and 1950s. Renovations included staging, staff rooms, and the small stage facing Kaisaniemi Park.

In contrast to the original plan, the rearrangement of the premises and modernization of technical installations were carried out on the existing structures, as the planned extension of the property was overturned due to an urban planning complaint. The cramped premises naturally posed their own challenges for implementing the technical solutions.

The third stage – a 200-seat hall – was built in the old workshop space. The use of the space changed from staff to public use during the renovation, which also meant that its exit arrangements and fire safety requirements became more demanding. The required solutions were found through applied design, and the exit arrangements could be adapted to the building’s existing stairwells.

In protected listed buildings, the scope for spatial changes is limited, so fire safety is often improved by using technical equipment. In the National Theatre, the coverage of its automatic fire extinguishing system was also extended. In addition, a glass wall in the lobby of the small stage was replaced during the project by a solid steel glass wall. This required mechanical smoke ventilation, which was unnoticeably installed into the hall’s existing beam spacing.

The University of Helsinki Main Building: Major Technical Improvements at the Heart of the Design

The main building of the University of Helsinki was built in two phases. The section facing the Senate Square was completed in the first half of the 19th century, while the section facing Fabianinkatu, now renovated, was completed in the early 20th century.

During the renovation of the university’s main building, particular attention was paid to improving the exit safety solutions. The building’s staircase solution, which was typical for the time period, was not the most effective way to safely evacuate the building. As part of the refurbishment, one new exit staircase was added to the building, and the exit routes were significantly improved.

The functions of the building’s protected areas remained unchanged. The new building services, including ventilation ducts and electrical, plumbing, and drainage systems, were concealed as discreetly as possible in the old building mass. Large, new machine rooms were placed on the building's roof, out of sight from the street and building's users.

In addition to renovating the early 20th-century part of the building, the southern courtyard of the property was converted to create 500 square metres of new interior space. The extension works within the renovation required performance-based dimensioning of the roof’s steel structures in the new space.

Site supervision was also carried out during the project, with a particular emphasis on fire compartments. Nearly 100 windows and doors in the building needed to be refurbished or modified as fire compartments, and the fire safety expert working on the project was responsible for inspecting, reporting and supervising these modifications.

The Role of the Fire Safety Engineer in Refurbishments

When working on refurbishment projects, fire safety experts need solid knowledge of both practice and theory to apply solutions. It is often clear from the start of a refurbishment project that even the most recent drawings of the building do not reflect the actual and existing solutions. Therefore, it is important that fire safety experts take a practical approach from the very beginning of the project.

The most typical tasks of fire safety engineers in refurbishment projects are the examination of exit safety and load-bearing structures and the prevention of fire spread. In addition, projects will look at the suitability of fire compartmentation, smoke ventilation and surface materials. If building use is changed during renovation, the fire safety aspect is also highlighted, as the suitability of the new purpose and exit safety are carefully assessed. Refurbishment from the perspective of fire safety is therefore not done on paper but by focusing on the unique features of the target property.

At Jensen Hughes, we provide the fire safety expertise you need for your renovation project. Our global network of experts is renowned for their excellent ability to combine theory with practical knowledge as well as their local know-how.

Read more about our services and contact one of our experts!

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About the author

Jukka Liikanen
Jukka has close to 30 years experience in building construction planning with the last 10 years focused solely on fire safety engineering.