Denmark lacks fire safety guidelines for renovation and conversion works

Published: 23.04.24 - Photo: Ida Marie Odgaard/Ritzau Scanpix

In Denmark, almost all fire safety rules lapse when buildings are under construction, renovation or conversion. Following the disastrous fire at Børsen (the old Stock Exchange building in Copenhagen), DBI recommends that guidelines are worked out for fire safety during the construction and conversion phases.

"Preventing a fire is a lot more interesting than putting a fire out,"

These words come from Marcello Francati, who is a fire safety consultant at DBI – The Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology, but has 30 years’ experience from the emergency response services. For the same reason, he is also a strong advocate of guidelines to finally be drawn up to safeguard construction projects before they are put into use. The fire at Børsen, which on 16 April destroyed large parts of the beautiful 400-year-old building, makes it clearly evident that there is a need for guidelines in this area.

"In Denmark, we have comprehensive building regulations that generally ensure a high fire safety level in our buildings. The only problem is that all of these rules lapse as soon as a building is being constructed, renovated or converted. As a consequence, the building is actually most vulnerable during the construction and renovation phases. We should remedy this by drawing up some clear guidelines and recommendations for this area," says Marcello Francati and continues:

"Some years ago, DBI made a concerted effort to get the construction industry parties and the insurance industry to work together on the preparation of fire safety guidelines for both new construction and renovation. "

"The fire at Børsen also emphasises the importance of automatic fire alarm systems. It was actually the automatic fire alam system in the building that alerted the fire brigade and ensured a rapid emergency response. So we also need to consider for which buildings it really makes sense to install automatic fire alarm systems, even though there is no statutory requirement," says Marcello Francati.

Several reasons for the scale of the fire

According to Marcello Francati, the fact that, despite a rapid response from the emergency services, half of the Børsen building was engulfed by the fire, was due to a combination of several circumstances.

"On the one hand, we had a very old building with wooden load-bearing structures and a wooden roof structure, so there was a lot of combustible material to feed the fire. The building also had a large, open, roof cavity, without the fire compartments that are used in modern buildings. This caused the fire to spread significantly faster. We also had a solid copper roof that did not burn away immediately. This means that the fire was raging under a metal panel and was difficult for the emergency response team to access. This can be compared with a fire under the bonnet of a car. In this case, too, it's no good just splashing water over the bonnet," says Marcello Francati, adding:

"Normally, a fire in roof structures spreads up through the roof, where it can be accessed from above. This was not possible at Børsen, due to its copper roof. That’s why they had to fight the fire from below and from the sides," he says.

Difficult fire fighting

However, the fire-fighting was also hampered by several other factors besides the copper roof mentioned above. The challenges can generally be attributed to the age of the building and the ongoing renovation work.

"Firstly, the building was enclosed by scaffolding, which made it difficult to access the building. In addition, extinguishing a fire in a historic building is far more complicated because it's harder to predict how the fire will spread. If you have horizontal division structures and concrete walls in modern buildings, you at least know that the fire will not spread that way, and that you need to concentrate your efforts elsewhere. In historic buildings, there may also be suspended ceilings, old, leaky ventilation ducts, or chimney ducts that create a cavity through the building," says Marcello Francati and continues:

"At the same time, you can't just throw an unlimited amount of water on a building that you want to preserve, because the water also affects the structure. The emergency services worked to keep the facades and gables in place, but this was a balancing act, because you can't blow out the fire, so there is no alternative to water," says Marcello Francati, who also highlights some of the positive circumstances that helped the emergency services during the firefighting:

"The fire brigade was on site quickly after the alarm was triggered and also upgraded their response very quickly. In addition, they had easy access to water supplies from the canals right next to Børsen. And finally, the weather was fine, which made the work of saving the valuable artworks from out of the building a lot easier."

Saving valuables

The emergency services, the royal lifeguards and ordinary passers-by all helped to save a large proportion of the valuable artworks from out of the Børsen building.

"In this situation, all the cultural heritage assets in the building had to be rescued before the roof collapsed, and the fire and the fire hydrant water destroyed the remaining building and everything of value inside it. If it had rained on that day, the challenge would have been greater because the rain could have damaged the artworks that were rescued from the building," says Marcello Francati and continues:

"In addition, fortunately, Børsen had some kind of asset rescue plan, so that they knew which assets it was most important to rescue. An asset rescue plan is absolutely crucial when time is tight, and the emergency response team does not know what is most important to get out and therefore risks leaving the most valuable objects behind in the flames."

Too early to guess the cause of the fire

The big question now is, of course, how the fire started in the first place. According to Marcello Francati, it is too early to say anything specific about this.

"But we do know that the building did not catch fire by itself. We also know that the building has been standing there for 400 years without burning down and that renovation work was under way when the fire broke out. That’s why it’s obvious to look at the renovation process. Not least because historically we have many examples of fires breaking out during renovation work," says Marcello Francati, adding:

"The two most frequent causes of fires during renovation work are hot work, i.e. work with spark-producing tools, and structural changes, when old electrical installations are disturbed. We don't yet know whether this is what happened here. But it will be very interesting to see what the investigations reveal, because we've lost a major cultural-historical treasure" he says.

What we know about the fire at Børsen on 16 April 2024

  • 07:36: The emergency services are alerted.
  • Around 08:00: The emergency response team is on its way to Slotsholmen. Shortly afterwards, fire-fighting and the rescue of assets begin.
  • 08:30: The building’s dragon spire falls to the ground.
  • 09:05: Provianthuset, the building opposite Børsen, is evacuated.
  • 09:35: 90 royal lifeguards arrive to help with rescuing assets.
  • 12:30: More than 400 rescued artworks and valuables are transported to the National Museum’s high-security warehouse in Vinge.
  • Fire-fighting and extinguishing are ongoing throughout the day and night.
  • About half of the building has burned down.
  • Nobody was injured.
  • 18 April at around 17:00: One side of the building collapses.
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DBI recommends:

  • Preparation of fire safety guidelines during renovation and conversion works
  • Installation of automatic fire detection systems in all cultural heritage buildings
  • Preparation of asset rescue plans for all buildings with irreplaceable treasures


Marcello Francati

Marcello Francati

Fire Safety Consultant

+45 23 25 73 94