Renovation Time is a High-Risk Time for your Historic Building

As we watched in horror when Notre Dame Cathedral’s spire and roof were engulfed in flames in April, the thought “this can’t be happening to Notre Dame!” passed through the minds of many. It was a sobering reminder that the worst can happen to a beloved structure.

In November 2018 the Wright community we recently learned with sadness that wildfire decimated the Oboler Estate in Malibu, California. In response to the Oboler loss, the Conservancy provided an introduction to disaster preparedness.

While the exact cause of the Notre Dame fire is under investigation, it began at a time when major renovations were underway. This is an important reminder that renovation and restoration work can put a structure at increased risk. Some examples:

  • In 1975, the second and third floor of Wright’s Hills House on Forest Avenue in Oak Park were destroyed by fire when cleaning fluids and paint fumes were ignited by an electric sander.
  • In 1990, Beachy House, across the street from the Hills house, was devastated by a fire started by a roofer’s torch.
  • In 2006, the KAM Synagogue/Pilgrim Baptist Church, designed by Wright’s early employers Adler and Sullivan, was gutted by a fire also started by a roofer’s torch. Its fire-stained outer walls still stand at the corner of Indiana and 33rd on Chicago’s South Side with an uncertain future.
  • In 2018, the Glasgow (Scotland) School of Art, masterpiece of Wright’s contemporary Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was completely gutted by fire as restoration from a major 2014 fire was nearing completion.

The National Trust has developed a guide for fire safety in historic buildings.

The guide notes on p.12:

The potential for fire during a building rehabilitation is greater than during normal use and occupancy. Fire protection upgrades are not yet completed, for example, and walls and floors are opened up which creates paths for fire spread. Highly combustible materials—demolition debris, crates and boxes, and so on—are left lying around. Welding and cutting operations, plumbing torches, tar kettles, temporary heating equipment, and wiring may serve as ignition sources and create a rapidly developing fire.


Restoration and renovation can impose additional stresses on a building than it was originally designed to accommodate. The Conservancy urges all building stewards to work closely with their design and construction professionals to make sure that utmost care is taken during renovation and restoration work to ensure the safety of their building and those working on and in it.

The Conservancy recommends that stewards develop a familiarity with issues relating to reducing the potential of loss at their home or site.

  • Site housekeeping is important and can be indicative of the general level of care being taken by a construction team.
  • Contractors should confirm that your electrical service is sufficient for work being done, and if not, provide supplemental power.
  • The site should be equipped with fire extinguishers. The type and number of extinguishers should meet or exceed local building and fire department requirements.
  • Consider renovation techniques that do not require intense heat, such heat guns for paint removal and touches for roofing materials. These techniques greatly increase the risk associated with renovation by igniting combustible materials behind walls and under roofs. Such fires can smolder undetected until they become extremely difficult to control. Some preservation organizations have banned the use of such equipment on their sites because of the risks they create.
  • Where welding is in progress within a wood structure, contractors should designate a person other than the welder to be on fire watch in the area of work while welding is underway. That area should be actively checked for hot spots or smoldering before leaving the area following work.
  • All rags soaked with flammable liquids during wood finishing should be removed and properly disposed of at the end of the day.
  • Investigate if your insurance coverage changes during construction work. Your policy may call for you to inform your provider at such times. It’s best to check with your agent.
  • It’s very important to be certain that your contractors have adequate liability and loss insurance. Some policies require a copy of each contractor’s liability insurance certificate to be submitted prior to work.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it gives a good idea of the many things to consider when planning renovation and restoration work. With proper planning and communication, your restoration should be the success you want it to be.

Posted on June 19, 2019

Back to All Posts