Published on September 5, 2014.

A PRIMER ON NFPA's cultural and historical occupancies codes

NFPA 909, Protection of Cultural Resource Properties—Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship, and NFPA 914, Fire Protection of Historic Structures, are purpose built to address the exact types of challenges found in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral project. “Each code is set up to provide a path forward in terms of finding the right type of protection measure for the circumstance,” says Gregory Harrington, staff liaison for the NFPA Technical Committee on Cultural Resources, which maintains both codes.

Chapter 4 of NFPA 914 contains two major goals that provide the design intent when it is applied: historic preservation of the structure, and protection and life safety from the effects of fire. The historic preservation aspect includes provisions that minimize damage to historic structures or materials from fire and fire suppression; maintain and preserve the original space configurations of historic buildings; and minimize alteration, destruction, or loss of historic fabric or design, where “historic fabric” represents the spirit of what the historic building represents to society.

Harrington says the codes and the committee are aware of the importance of maintaining a historic building’s original appearance and configuration. Owners of historic buildings and cultural preservationists are reluctant to install fire protection systems or perform other renovations if they destroy the building’s historic fabric. Flexibility is the key, and both NFPA 909 and NFPA 914 provide options that mix prescriptive requirements, performance based design rules, and management operational systems to meet the high-level goals. “We don’t want to lose the world’s historic treasures to fire—once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” Harrington says. “We also don’t want to lose the essence of the historic features of the building during renovation and code compliance updates. NFPA 909 and NFPA 914 help building owners and designers provide much needed protection while maintaining the building’s irreplaceable historic and cultural significance.”