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Going up in flames: Are Singapore's oldest buildings fire safe?

20 Apr 2019

Straits Times, 20 Apr 2019, Going up in flames: Are Singapore's oldest buildings fire safe?
 
The Arts House, built between 1826 and 1827 as a residence but used as a chamber and courthouse, is likely the oldest standing building in the country.
 
Singapore's old monoliths, many of which are national monuments, also include temples and churches where incense and tea light candles are burned almost daily.
 
A few buildings date back to the 1830s, including the Armenian Church, Thian Hock Keng temple and Masjid Jamae.
 
What measures are in place to prevent an inferno in these historic buildings in the wake of the Notre-Dame fire in Paris that destroyed the roof of the historic cathedral and caused its spire to collapse?
 
Just like a new building, Singapore's oldest structures have to meet the same stringent requirements issued and regulated by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).
 
In response to queries from The Straits Times, the BCA said Singapore buildings are required to undergo structural inspections at regular intervals.
 
Building owners must appoint a professional engineer to inspect residential blocks once every 10 years, and for other types of buildings, once every five years.
 
The engineers are to carry out a visual inspection of the condition, loading and any addition or alteration to the structure of the building.
 
Said the BCA spokesman: "This is to ensure that structural defects can be detected and rectified early, so that buildings continue to be structurally sound for occupation."
 
Under the Fire Code, which was introduced in 1974, all new buildings and existing ones undergoing addition and alteration works must comply with SCDF requirements.
 
Specific requirements are imposed on owners or occupiers of buildings designated for conservation and those who wish to preserve the use of timber flooring during addition and alteration works.
 
For example, the SCDF requires the installation of fire-rated floor boards to prevent the spread of fire between floors, and automatic fire alarms if the building exceeds three storeys.
 
The SCDF has said it will amend the Fire Safety Act later this year. It will require owners of selected older buildings to carry out certain fire safety upgrades.
 
The SCDF said it recognises that older buildings which have not implemented newer fire safety measures may face higher safety risks.
 
It will prioritise high-risk industrial buildings, public buildings and hospitals, working closely with building owners.
 
The National Heritage Board (NHB) said there have been no fire incidents at Singapore's 72 national monuments or NHB's six-storey Heritage Conservation Centre, which houses more than 150,000 artefacts from the National Collection.
 
Among them are portraits of Singapore's pioneers, archaeological finds as well as rare textiles, jewellery and ceramics.
 
The purpose-built NHB facility was constructed with fire-rated brick walls and is elevated to protect against flooding.
 
In addition, the centre is equipped with fire monitoring and suppression systems.
 
These are maintained by specialist contractors who run regular checks and tests.
 
The centre also conducts disaster and emergency management system exercises and fire drills annually to ensure its staff are prepared to respond to emergencies.
 
In recent years, a spate of fires has rocked heritage institutions around the world.
 
Last September, a conflagration gutted Brazil's 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, destroying most of its collection of more than 20 million items, ranging from archaeological finds to historical memorabilia.
 
In Indonesia, at least three fires have taken place in the past few years.
 
In 2015, a blaze ripped through Jakarta's oldest Chinese temple - the Vihara Dharma Bhakti, which has roots dating back to 1650.
 
In February this year, the Samudra Bhakti temple in Bandung caught fire, allegedly caused by lit prayer candles inside the temple that had been blown by strong winds.
 
Last month, the Tay Kak Sie temple, built in 1746 in Semarang, caught fire. One person died.
 
In Singapore, a fire broke out on Feb 9 at the 80-year-old Poh Ann Keng Taoist temple in Tampines, damaging its front hall, prayer altar and 30 statuettes, which are purportedly as old as the temple itself.
 
Architectural historian and conservator Yeo Kang Shua said all unnecessary flammable objects should be removed and electrical cables should be up to standard and never overloaded.
 
"Open flames such as candle and oil lamps must be attended to at all times," he added.
 
Dr Yeo, an associate professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said timber is more flammable than other construction materials, but it does not mean the material should be avoided in building projects.
 
He said that Singapore's 72 national monuments were primarily built with bricks, plaster and timber.
 
"We just have to reduce the risk to life," he said, adding that one major preventive measure - to save lives and buildings - is to conduct regular maintenance and inspections.
 
ISSUES THAT LIE AHEAD FOR NOTRE-DAME
 
In the case of the Notre-Dame, international architectural experts note that Gothic buildings can typically withstand infernos because stone vaults were added as firestops to prevent the spread of any blaze from a building's roof to its interior.
 
Restoring an old building requires great technical and technological skill to reconnect the structure to its past.
 
Experts believe the Notre-Dame's reconstruction, which could take decades, might be one of the longest in modern times.
 
Dr Yeo said: "The materials and craftsmanship will never be the same, although they can try very hard to source products as close as possible to the original materials."
 
Although the main structure and stone walls of the famed cathedral are still standing, it is likely to have suffered from the effects of the sudden heat and rapid cooling when the fire was put out. This could result in the stone crumbling.
 
Investigators have already identified weaknesses in the building's vault and gable of the structure's northern transept.
 
Dr Yeo said the French now face complex questions on what would be an "authentic" restoration for the global icon.
 
He said: "Should the Notre-Dame be restored to what it was like prior to the fire? Do we restore it based on the status quo or do we allow room for some stylistic interpretations?"
 
There are two schools of thought, he added.
 
One is that of stylistic restoration, led by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who restored the Notre-Dame in the 19th century.
 
He believed in re-establishing a building to a finished state which might have never existed.
 
The other is status-quo conservation, which avoids interpreting a building beyond its existing state because the issue of what is original, in the absence of a structure's original architect, is always questionable.