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Tue Apr 16, 2019, 01:22 PM

Why cathedrals are vulnerable to burning quickly and take a long time to rebuild

WorldViews
Why cathedrals are vulnerable to burning quickly and take a long time to rebuild

By Adam Taylor, Foreign reporter who writes about a variety of subjects, and Email Emily Tamkin
April 16 at 2:05 PM

If you were to design a building that would be particularly vulnerable to a spectacular fire, look no further than Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. ... The iconic building, initially constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, was built with heavy stone exterior walls, a wooden roof made of old oak and below that, a cavernous exterior, full of oxygen that feeds flames. ... Indeed, Notre Dame was intentionally designed this way. The roof was built of wood so that it could burn off if it caught fire but the walls and other structures made of stone wouldn’t burn down. One big advantage of this architectural feature: The fire would be contained by the stone exterior and not put the rest of the city at risk. ... That appears to be what happened Monday, as the world watched in horror as flames shot through the 800-year-old structure. While seriously damaged — the roof collapsed, its 300-foot spire crumbled, and parts of the wooden interior were charred — the fire appears to have done no harm to other buildings in the tightly packed Paris neighborhood.

“I think what people should understand is the ingenious approach by medieval builders,” said Kevin D. Murphy, a professor of art history at Vanderbilt University. ... But some experts say that cathedrals and other places of worship built centuries ago are — at the least — hazardous to themselves, even if they were built with what passed in medieval times as cutting-edge, fire-containing safety measures. ... “Obviously, modern code was not written with cathedrals in mind,” said James W. Shepherd, director of preservation and facilities at Washington National Cathedral.

A big question will now linger over any plans to rebuild Notre Dame: Should it be rebuilt exactly as before, even if it includes replicating the flammable oak roof? Or will government officials force modern fire regulations onto an iconic building? ... “The technology of the building is not, of course, technology that we use anymore,” Murphy said. “In some cases, the actual technology has been under debate for centuries. Trying to understand how it was built is not straightforward.”

It’ll be a process watched closely around the world. Throughout history, there have been a large number of fires at cathedrals and other buildings, from the Old St. Paul’s in London that burned during the Great Fire of 1666, to St. Mel’s Cathedral in Longford, Ireland, that was destroyed in a fire on Christmas Day 2009. ... Kevin Fay, construction director at Gem Construction, which helped rebuild St. Mel’s, said that some aspects of that blaze were similar to the Notre Dame fire this week.
....

One thing isn’t up for debate: Any restoration or repair will take plenty of money and a lot of time. The restoration of St. Mel’s took $33 million and five years. Even with the vast sums of money already raised for Notre Dame, it’s a far larger building at the heart of one of Europe’s largest and most expensive cities. ... “Put it this way,” said Fay. “If you’re walking back into Notre Dame Cathedral in 10 year’s time, that’s a major achievement.”

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University. Follow https://twitter.com/mradamtaylor

Emily Tamkin reports and writes on foreign affairs for the WorldViews team. Follow https://twitter.com/emilyctamkin

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Reply Why cathedrals are vulnerable to burning quickly and take a long time to rebuild (Original post)
mahatmakanejeeves Apr 2019 OP
zipplewrath Apr 2019 #1
unc70 Apr 2019 #2
jberryhill Apr 2019 #3
VMA131Marine Apr 2019 #4
bobbieinok Apr 2019 #5
mahatmakanejeeves Apr 2019 #6

Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Tue Apr 16, 2019, 01:24 PM

1. I was thinking something similar

“Put it this way,” said Fay. “If you’re walking back into Notre Dame Cathedral in 10 year’s time, that’s a major achievement.”


I wonder if it will be completed in my life time.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Tue Apr 16, 2019, 01:45 PM

2. Also wondered about in my lifetime

I'm 70 and have spent a lot of time in Paris, often stay a couple of blocks from ND. Last night I thought the odds of me ever being in ND again were tiny. Today I am far more encouraged though the odds are still against me. I suspect I will need to inspect the progress at least once a year until then.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Tue Apr 16, 2019, 01:49 PM

3. Considering that electric lighting is relatively new


For much of human history, it has only been possible to illuminate things at night, or within indoor spaces absent a lot of natural light, by burning something.

Consequently every major old ecclesiastical structure has had its fair share of fires.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Tue Apr 16, 2019, 02:14 PM

4. The description in the OP is not totally accurate

Note Dame also had a vaulted masonry ceiling underneath the wood roof. Except in the couple of areas it collapsed, particularly underneath the spire, this mostly prevented the fire from spreading to the interior of the cathedral proper. The damage would have been much worse if that ceiling hadn't been there. Of course, how many people know how to rebuild a centuries old masonry ceiling.

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Response to VMA131Marine (Reply #4)

Tue Apr 16, 2019, 02:22 PM

5. Thanks for posting. Much to think about

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Tue Apr 16, 2019, 02:50 PM

6. Notre Dame's age, design fueled fire and foiled firefighters

Notre Dame’s age, design fueled fire and foiled firefighters
By MICHAEL R. SISAK and SETH BORENSTEIN
yesterday

NEW YORK (AP) — Is there anything firefighters could have done to control the blaze that tore through Paris’ historic Notre Dame Cathedral sooner? ... Experts say the combination of a structure that’s more than 850 years old, built with heavy timber construction and soaring open spaces, and lacking sophisticated fire-protection systems led to the quick rise of flames Monday, which jeopardized the entire cathedral before firefighters brought the blaze under control. ... “Very often when you’re confronted with something like this, there’s not much you can do,” said Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College.
....

Other landmark houses of worship have taken steps in recent years to reduce the risk of a fire. ... St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, built in 1878, installed a sprinkler-like system during recent renovations and coated its wooden roof with fire retardant. The cathedral also goes through at least four fire inspections a year.

Washington National Cathedral, built in 1912 with steel, brick and limestone construction that put it at less risk of a fast-moving fire, is installing sprinklers as part of a renovation spurred by damage from a 2011 earthquake. ... That cathedral faces fire inspections every two years, but D.C. firefighters stop by more often to learn about the church’s unique architecture and lingo — so they’ll know where to go if there’s a fire in the nave, or main area of the church — for instance.

“It’s really important for us to make sure that those local firefighters are aware of our building and our kooky medieval names that we use for all the different spaces and that they know where to go,” said Jim Shepherd, the cathedral’s director of preservation and facilities.
....

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Borenstein reported from Washington.

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Follow Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak and Borenstein at twitter.com/borenbears

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