Safeguarding the Trust

How do you protect a 234-year old showcase to England’s past? Very carefully. Preserving a rare, early Industrial-Revolution property requires lots of planning, sensitivity, and passionate commitment. We at Zurich are proud to have helped install the first modern fire safety sprinklers at a major National Trust site.

Styal, Cheshire. In the English countryside thirty minutes south of Manchester, Zurich risk engineer Gary Howe proceeds down a winding lane. Around a bend, he pauses for moment to take in a massive red brick structure. Set in a bend of the River Bollin, the mill at Quarry Bank rises like a living monument to a time when cutting-edge technology meant water power, spinning mules and weaving sheds.

It’s a special day. The mill at Quarry Bank is the first major National Trust site to be equipped with modern fire safety sprinklers. Today the sprinklers will be tested for the first time. It’s a day that almost didn’t happen. It took some convincing.

“Hollywood hasn’t made my job easy,” Howe grumbles, ducking through a door. Overhead a brick lintel is inscribed ‘anno 1784,’ the year the mill began operation. As Zurich’s senior fire protection engineer leading Zurich’s fire safety upgrade at Quarry Bank, Howe has spent months planning how to make the mill at the Quarry Bank site safer for the over 200,000 visitors who come each year. One question he concerned himself with, together with the customer, was whether fire safety sprinklers would be an option in a structure where a big consideration is preserving historical accuracy.

For historical sites, it’s important to preserve the structure’s integrity. Bearing in mind that old mills are easy prey to fire, Howe knows that sprinklers could be a solution. But part of his job involves correcting popular misconceptions about how fire sprinklers work. It is not like in the movies. In Hollywood films, sprinklers tend to go off at the slightest provocation. In action movies, a single alarm will trigger Niagara Falls. Forget what you see in films, Howe says.

“In the movies, activation of a single sprinkler head triggers a building-wide deluge. But usually, if needed, just one or two sprinklers are set off and that’s enough to suppress and control a fire. Many people don’t understand this, and it gives sprinklers a bad reputation.” Howe notes that sprinklers, properly installed and maintained have proved over the years they have been in use (the first automatic sprinkler was patented in 1874) that they help to save lives, property, mitigate business interruption and even protect the environment, including by reducing air pollution from smoke and contamination from water used to douse a fire if it were otherwise allowed to spread.

engineer cotton threads

Broadcast drama, bats and barefoot children

In 2015 the National Trust began an extensive, long-term conservation project to tell Quarry Bank’s story. It is a popular landmark, and visitor traffic increased after a Channel 4 drama, ‘The Mill,’ was filmed there. The site is a nature-lover’s paradise that offers extensive grounds, many native varieties of trees, and wildlife including nine species of bats. Scholars study its records that go back to the mill’s founding, and even before. Schools organize outings for children to learn what life was like when being poor meant very likely a workhouse, or else, being put to work at a young age tending dangerous machinery. Children working in cotton mills often went barefoot due to the danger of sparks from their iron-soled clogs. Fire was an ever-present threat in old mills.

Finding solutions

For the mill at Quarry Bank, a fire safety solution was needed. One that would not compromise the look and feel of the old structure, but one that would work and help to keep the property and visitors safe. After all, old mills were not designed as visitor sites. “The fire resistance of the structure, both vertically and horizontally was poor, because of its age and the building type,” according to Phyllis Bayley, the senior building surveyor at the National Trust. But there was also the matter of site integrity. “It was thought that putting in sprinklers was going to be both intrusive and expensive,” Bayley says.

The National Trust came round to the idea of sprinklers in the end, however. After all, a mill is an industrial site, so sprinkler pipes wouldn’t appear out of place. And fire safety sprinklers should also improve containment in the event of a blaze. This was important to provide full access to people who might need more time to evacuate, including the disabled. The other option would have been to install fire separation walls and doors, which would have altered the appearance of the building.

To ensure the sprinklers matched the structure, Zurich’s team helped by making sure they were camouflaged: that included painting the water pipework to match the color of the immediate background. “The aesthetics of the sprinklers (are) extremely good,” Bayley says.

zurich and customer

A secret in the coal shed

There was still no small matter of finding a place to hide a modern red diesel-powered engine the size of a minibus, capable of pumping water at a rate of 2,000 liters per minute through the sprinkler system.  And space was needed for a tank holding 140,000 liters of water, basically the size of a small swimming pool. At last, a solution presented itself. A red brick coal shed next to the mill proved to be the ideal place to conceal the pump and tank, keeping them dry, safe and easily accessible.

How do you test a fire sprinkler system?

“Ready?” Testing new sprinkler systems is something that Howe does personally, given the major risks that a fire safety system might fail if not done correctly. Bringing the system to life “is my favorite part,” Howe says. “I get to put it through its paces and test that it is fit for purpose. There is nothing better than to know that the system is fully operational. I can sleep more soundly at night.”

On a signal, a fire alarm specialist holds a special canister of artificial smoke up to a ceiling detector: two puffs are enough to activate a red light on a single smoke detector, which switches the system to ‘alert’ mode and sends an audible warning to alert the site’s management, while also sending a text message to management cell phones telling them the location of the activated smoke detector.

A ‘double-knock’ system

This is a so-called ‘double-knock’ (two-alarm) fire detection system that requires smoke to be detected in two separate zones to trigger the system’s warning to evacuate. So the specialist moves to another section of the room and the smoke canister puffs again. On a second detector, two red lights go on. An alarm sounds. All the fire alarms ring. This also prompts the pump to fill all of the sprinkler pipes with water.

Bearing in mind that heat rises, a glass bulb on top of an individual sprinkler head would have to shatter, once the temperature from a fire reached a certain level, to prompt the sprinkler to release water in that area. Now a final test is done to make sure that water is delivered throughout the system at the right pressure. Out in the old coal shed, the diesel engine roars to life. Pressurized water shoots out of a hose rigged to one sprinkler pipe, held out of a window. The test is a success. The mill’s fire safety system is ready to be switched on.

mill in operation

Looking to the past and the future

Quarry Bank ceased life as a working mill in 1959. But thanks to the National Trust, it still lives on as one of England’s best-preserved early industrial sites. It includes not only the old mill, but also an intact owner’s family home, apprentice house and workers’ cottages, extensive gardens and churches, and other original structures that together give a full picture of an era when a new ways of working, production, trade and wealth were having a profound impact on people’s lives. Quarry Bank represents continuity, too. Its visitors include descendants of those families who for generations worked at the mill.

“Everybody comes here for different reasons,” the National Trust’s Phyllis Bayley says. “Some people come for the machinery. Some people come for the history. Some people come for the social history side of it, the fact that it is the juxtaposition of mill owners and workers and village and everything else. The site is just amazing, really, in terms of social history.”

Zurich is glad to be able to do its part to preserve such an important historical site for the future.

A specialist’s mindset

Testing concluded, Gary Howe makes his way back up the lane. When not visiting customers, he serves on numerous fire protection committees to support, improve and develop fire safety standards and codes. In his spare time he also coaches track and field athletes. He says he enjoys solving problems. And spotting potential problems. He is not a man who relaxes, even when he is technically relaxing. Not far from where he’s parked, Howe stops to admire a traditional English thatched roof on a cottage.

“Statistically speaking, homes with thatched roofs are no more likely to catch fire than those with conventional roofs,” he observes. “The real danger with these thatched roofs is that if one does ignite, the results are rapid and spectacular. Around 90 percent of thatch fires are caused by chimneys – so making sure you have your chimney swept regularly to prevent a build-up of soot deposits is highly important.”

As he drives away, Howe is already busy thinking about other places, customers and solutions. He describes how it is possible to completely conceal fire safety sprinkler pipework behind walls, within ceilings and under floors to make the sprinkler system more aesthetically pleasing. Would that, he wonders, be a solution for another customer, perhaps one with a stately home? That’s a question for tomorrow.


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