The main purpose of passive fire protection in buildings is to save lives, but it can also save history. Sadly, there have been a great many historically significant buildings lost to fire over the centuries. While we can’t change the past, we can ensure the future safety of buildings by understanding and addressing what we now know to be fire safety risks. Passive fire industry leaders know aesthetics should never compromise the safety of a building, but in past centuries, architects and engineers didn’t consider or properly understand fire safety being more important than visual appeal. Older buildings therefore present a real challenge when it comes to reaching an acceptable level of fire resistance.

While it seems like a relatively recent invention, passive fire protection can be traced back to ancient Rome. After a devastating fire that destroyed nearly half the city, Emperor Nero decided to rebuild using methods such as space separation between buildings and using non-combustible materials. Even still, it has only been the last twenty to thirty years that building codes have introduced firm passive fire safety compliance measures.

Correcting past mistakes

What was perceived as safe in the past is often unlikely to meet code today. Over the last fifty years, fire safety has mainly employed active methods of protection such as sprinkler systems, fire escapes or extinguishers. While the implementation and maintenance of these are now rigid in their regulation, we know that these measures alone will not stop a fire.

Older buildings are often constructed without due consideration of the potential transfer of heat, air and light around a structure. Also, when new services are introduced to old buildings, the original structure may be incorrectly adapted, creating new weaknesses and voids where fire can pass through. The Australian building industry has determined that only tested and/or fire engineer approved passive fire protection solutions can be installed when retrofitting a building. For the work to receive its warranty, product manufacturers often require it to be installed by a certified installer.

Common Fire Safety Challenges in Older Buildings

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the most common challenges we come across when developing passive fire protection solutions with construction teams.

Exposed Timber and Old Brickwork

Wooden design features such as exposed beams or supporting columns could be combustible fire hazards if the substrate hasn’t been coated with protective paint or covered with fire retardant board or plaster. While older brickwork is likely to need structural attention, cracked and degrading mortar can also be a potential weak point where fire can penetrate between walls and compartments. Fireproof mortar is now non-negotiable for building masonry.

Old Paints

Most commercial and industrial oil-based paint formulas are highly flammable. Old paint is especially volatile and can add fuel to fires once they have broken out. As intumescent paints and non-combustible coatings are relatively new innovations, it is likely that older paintwork on masonry or structural elements will need to be sandblasted and reapplied if you would like to keep the original building features.

Lack of Compartmentation

As we know, an effective passive fire protection method is compartmentation, where the sub-division of a building into smaller, sealed sections or units can potentially limit the spread of fire and potential damage. Older buildings are unlikely to have considered this in the original design and will need addressing by building engineers and your passive fire protection provider.


Unfortunately, it can take major events and tragedies to effect change in industries. Cladding disasters have ensured tough revisions of how many cladding products are developed and applied. The Victorian Cladding Taskforce was established in 2017 to assess the extent of non-compliant external cladding on Victorian buildings, advise on the rectification of non-compliant external cladding and recommend changes to the regulatory system.

Retro-fitted Penetrations

Penetration registers are now standard on all new buildings, but older buildings have not been subjected to these standards or regular audits. This requires penetrations to be retrofitted. It can be common for service trades such as electricians or plumbers, inexperienced with passive fire protection implementation, to add services post-building completion. It is important that any penetrations through floors, walls or ceilings are fire-protected. Even one improperly sealed or protected penetration can compromise the entire system. 

Changing Use of Building

One level of fire compliance doesn’t automatically transfer between tenancies. Commercial, industrial and residential buildings all have different fire safety compliance requirements. If a building is changing from commercial to residential, compartmentation between apartments will need to be considered. If an old residential building is being upgraded for commercial purposes such as a production or hospitality facility, the fire resistance levels will need to follow different BCA guidelines.

Heritage Limitations

Modifications made on heritage-listed buildings must not damage any valuable or notable architectural characteristics, so talk to a passive fire expert about custom solutions for your heritage project. Non-heritage projects may offer construction and passive fire teams more flexibility, but if owners want to retain particular aspects, they may require a complex code-compliant solution that satisfies all parties.

Need further guidance?

PROFINISH Fire Protection has specified systems for a number of historically significant buildings including the Parliament of Victoria in Spring Street, Melbourne. Ask our team for reliable project guidance today. Get in touch by phone, email or here.