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Notre-Dame fire: Why historic restorations keep going up in flames

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16.04.2019

The moment I heard about the inferno at Notre-Dame de Paris (which I’d just visited in January), my first thought was: renovation.

Sadly, I will probably turn out to be right. “Unfortunately [fire] goes hand in hand with these old historic buildings,” says Edward Lewis, who has worked on the restoration of centuries-old wood-frame buildings in the U.K. Historic structures are “tinderboxes,” he says, because they often contain wood and other flammable materials that have dried out over years, or centuries.

It’s too soon to know what caused the Notre-Dame blaze. (The Paris prosecutor is investigating it as an “involuntary destruction by fire.”) But fires like these are often avoidable. “In my experience, invariably it’s human error, and it starts with the supervision levels,” says Lewis who is now construction project manager at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. (Full disclosure: He is also the husband of my colleague Michelle Lewis.)

“A lot of construction jobs, the ratio between supervisors and guys doing the work isn’t good enough,” he adds.

“Buildings under construction or renovation are at their most vulnerable and weakest condition,” wrote the U.S. Fire Administration, part of FEMA, in a bulletin published just last month. “Accumulation of waste combustibles, limited access, minimal water supply and hazardous operations increase the challenge.”

While old structures are highly........

© Fast Company