• Chris Dowler

Notre-Dame – Lessons Learned, and Is Your Facility Prepared?

While the recent fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was catastrophic, it was not a catastrophe. Preplanning enabled the saving of most of the artifacts, including the reputed Crown of Thorns, and enabled the Paris fire brigade to quickly develop water sources. But, lack of proper planning for fire protection led to fire running the length and breadth of the timber framed vaulted roof and hence, a near catastrophe. Photos provided through Reuters

The background…

At the time of the fire the cathedral was undergoing a $6.8 million-dollar renovation of the spire. Initial investigations into the cause of the fire are a potential electrical event in the renovation area, or human error.

While equipped with a smoke detection system, Notre-Dame did not have any other basic fire mitigation systems in place. There were no fire sprinkler systems, and there were no firewalls to compartmentalize areas and reduce, or at least slow down, fire spread.

One thousand, old growth oak trees were used to create the rafters which formed the framework of the vaulted ceiling. This forest of rafters, hundreds of years old and fully dried out, was ripe for a significant fire event. Unfortunately, curators of the cathedral underestimated the possibility of a fire in that space.

A confluence of poor risk analysis, a lack of proper maintenance, a lack of diligent construction management (if the fire is found to be caused by accidental activities related to the renovation) and a lack of investment in preventive maintenance (retroactive installation of fire sprinkler systems and / or installation of firewalls to compartmentalize spaces) contributed to where the iconic landmark is today.

Notre-Dame is owned by the government of France because of strict secular laws. In turn, the government leases it to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Paris in perpetuity for no fee. Though the archdiocese receives an annual maintenance budget from the government of $2.26 million, it is barely enough to cover minimum maintenance needs, let alone significant repairs and capital projects.

Again, because of the secular laws, the archdiocese wasn’t even given access to many of the non-public areas until recently. The extent of deterioration was therefore never documented, never budgeted for, according to Vivienne Welt in an April 15, 2019 updated article for Time.

Like most facility owners, the state cuts the most from that account about which it knows the least. Preventive maintenance has an inverse ratio of maintenance expense to replacement expense of anywhere from 4:1 – 15:1. Meaning, it is 4 times to 15 times more expensive to replace than maintain.

The positives…

On a positive note, many of the religious artifacts were saved due to cooperative pre-planning by Notre-Dame’s staff and the Paris Fire Brigade. Two exercises were held last year to practice just such an event.

In addition, the Paris Fire Brigade had pre-plans in place which accommodated the vast quantities of water they knew would be needed to fight a fire in the centuries-old cathedral. Upon notification of an actual fire, the Paris Fire Brigade immediately dispatched boats to the Seine capable of drafting large volumes of water from the river to feed the many hose streams anticipated to be needed.

Relying solely on the municipal water supply would have overtaxed the system and resulted in a complete loss.

So, what can you take away?

What we call Continuing Operations Plans (CoOPs) are critical to recovery efforts. Falling during the Christian Holy Week, Paris was fortunate to have nearly equally sized Churches to absorb Mass goers from Notre-Dame. Do you have someplace to quickly set up in the event of a loss of a building?

Pre-planning as part of the CoOP enabled the Paris Fire Brigade to save most of the precious relics and art as well as bring big water to bear on the fire. Do you have plans on how to preserve your most vital assets within the facility? Have you exercised your plan?

Proper maintenance should not be viewed as an expense; it should be viewed as an integral practice to operate the facility as a strategic asset. Do you properly plan and fund maintenance and capital repair / replacement accounts?

Notre-Dame has suffered years of neglect – has your facility performed a facility condition assessment to identify deferred maintenance and, most importantly, prioritized mitigation based on sound facts? Too often competing interests get funded based on “feelings” and aesthetics and box-checking, rather than true priorities to maximize the synergy between facility and your core mission.

Strategic Facility Planning enables your facility to transform from a money and time suck, to an integral partner in delivering core services and creating a healthy productive workplace for staff. Do you have a strategic facility plan?

Look at your facility and see how it can support the strategic plan. Do it now, before you face a catastrophe.


Chris Dowler, FMP

Founder and Owner

Dowler Construction Services

a strategic facility solutions firm

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