Notre Dame fire reveals restoration challenges for heritage assets

1 Aug 2019 Ross Castle

CCI’s Ross Castle explores the complexities and unique nature of the challenges associated with preserving and restoring heritage buildings in the event of damage, and highlights obligations placed on clients by heritage authorities. 

"This disaster has seriously damaged a historic building. But I am aware that it has also affected a national symbol dear to the hearts of Parisians and French in the diversity of their beliefs. For Notre-Dame is the architectural jewel of a collective memory, the gathering place for many major events, the witness of the faith and prayer of Catholics in the city."

Extract from Message of the Holy Father to the Archbishop of Paris, France, for the fire in the Cathedral of Notre Dame

Notre Dame CT2
CCI's Ross Castle and Melbourne's Archbishop Peter Comensoli.

When fire damaged one of the world’s iconic architectural marvels, France fell silent. It was difficult to comprehend the scale of the disaster because Notre Dame is loved for being more than a cathedral. The building symbolises the heart of French cultural identity and is an icon of Europe’s enduring commitment to architectural heritage.

Australia’s cathedrals and heritage buildings are unique also, and many contain items and liturgical assets that are worthy of meticulous cataloguing. Though not as old as Notre Dame Cathedral, they are structures in need of careful heritage identification, valuation, and protection.  It’s a task that requires expertise and knowledge explains Tom Dougherty, Manager, Property Claims for CCI.

“Dioceses and Parishes are aware of the importance of good governance in managing a heritage-listed asset. Working with the right partner who understands heritage assets is critical to returning them to their former glory if anything happens that results in a claim.”

The importance of church building valuations

  • Heritage buildings need to be professionally valued
  • Valuable property, art works, curio and cultural patrimony needs to be catalogued
  • Pre-planning through the development of a Conservation Management Plan is vital to ensure heritage buildings are well managed and maintained

Not all churches are heritage-listed but Leigh Muller thinks it’s something that building managers need to think about. He is an expert in the valuation of ecclesiastical and non-faith historic buildings and he is managing valuations for the majority of Australian Catholic Church buildings on behalf of CCI. He notes that valuations for ecclesiastical clients are required for a range of purposes. 

Typically, reliable professional valuations provide the following: 

  • A replacement cost with a similar building or a modern equivalent to enable the building to be suitably insured 
  • A fair value of land and buildings to meet financial reporting obligations. 
  • Market valuations of land or buildings for potential acquisition or disposal

“Apart from land and building valuations, experts are engaged to understand the value of a building’s contents and fine art, and to assess for risks from business interruption in the event of an incident resulting in damage,” he says.

Reconstruction or restoration plans often present difficulties based on the age and heritage significance of a structure. Notre Dame was undergoing roof repairs at the time of the fire that destroyed its spire and surrounding roof.

‘There is painstaking analysis regarding reconstruction and material costs in the event of disaster, this extends to hours obtaining information from third parties such as sandstone quarries, steeple manufacturers, stonemasons, pipe organ experts, stained glass specialists and bell foundries.”

“Understanding the likely reconstruction timeframes associated with historic structures is a key part of our work.”

Building reconstruction is the first and often most critical and urgent priority. However, what is often overlooked is the identification and protection of valuable contents. 

Cataloguing items of liturgical importance

There are numerous specially commissioned artworks that the National Liturgical Architecture and Art Council (NLAAC) of the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference wants Catholic Parishes to record via Cultura, a digital catalogue developed by CCI to assist clients in itemising Church assets. It’s a platform for listing modern artworks and imported religious objects and as well as unique stained glass windows that hold value for the Church. Items do not have to be old to carry liturgical value.

Graham Porter is CCI’s Diocesan Segment Lead and advises Australian Catholic Dioceses to identify, record, insure, and securely store items of significant liturgical and heritage value, including other modern church assets such as commissioned artwork.

“Having an online inventory enables Church communities to safeguard and preserve these important assets,” he explains.

“It’s also far easier today to document other information that holds value for the Church, including details of donors, inscriptions and dates, building material references, photographic evidence of interest for the purpose of conservation, and even ownership details and certifications.”

He explains that digital records are easy to store in separate locations for greater security. In the event of damage, these records will also support restoration planning.

“In order for us to understand clients and their risk support needs in depth, we’ve had to build on our collaborative approach to protecting their interests,” explains Graham.

“We’ve focused on developing heritage research and ways of cataloguing unique heritage assets. This not only helps to record cultural patrimony but offers the benefit of better understanding of the value of assets for the Church. It’s a rich source of information about what needs protection.”

Damage aftermath and risks in restoring heritage buildings

In France, historians and architects called for time ‘to assess but not act’ in its restoration planning of Notre-Dame, in order to guarantee the sustainability of the work.

Restoration presents significant risks with the absence of time to assess the impact of damage in the years to come. Additionally, a coordinated effort must supervise the reconstruction of a structure and the older that structure is, the more likely that external parties will weigh in on planning and schedules.

“CCI has assisted in the restoration planning of heritage-listed churches in Australia and has observed common delays and costs involved when a project faces management challenges,” says Graham.

“In the event of extensive damage to a church interior, it’s critical to have experienced and knowledgeable architects engaged in reconstruction works and external support to guide dialogue with heritage bodies when needed.”

Without knowledgeable parties or transparency with planning, he warns that restoration work may be exposed to accidents on-site, delays and mounting costs. Local communities can often have strong opinions about the preservation of a heritage building in their zone, and it’s important that all stakeholders are kept abreast of restoration efforts. 

Another factor that can impact the recovery process for a heritage-listed church is the task of sourcing materials which can draw out a claim over several years. It’s a timeframe which doesn’t account for any loss of parish revenue through this disruption. Parishioners are often forced to seek alternative locations for ceremonies such as baptisms during restoration works, and CCI has witnessed the displacement of some congregations as a result of extended projects.

“Having a partner that understands and works with the Church to mitigate these challenges is so important,” explains Graham.

“Working with the client in tailoring an appropriate risk and insurance solution ensures  peace of mind that their heritage-listed building has the best possible insurance protection.”  

Developing a Conservation Management Plan (CMP)

A lengthy post-mortem of the Notre-Dame fire is sure to become further entangled in disputes involving the interests of the French government and academics, historians, the public and the Church. In the meantime, how will the Archdiocese of Paris carry on? In Australia, important churches will face similar hurdles if damaged to the same extent as Notre Dame. They will need to observe their heritage provisions unique to jurisdictions federally, and those that apply at state, territory and local government level. The fact is that many outside of the Catholic Church community who should be considered stakeholders by those managing the upkeep of the nation’s ecclesiastical buildings are not actually engaged as external stakeholders in developing a conservation management plan. A CMP is a key document that helps develop the management strategy for historic assets, sites and places. It explains the significance of the asset and examines how any future use, management, alteration or repair will be carried out in order to retain the significance of the building.

The Archdiocese of Melbourne decided to take action this year, to ensure that St. Patrick’s Cathedral remains an important and symbolic building for Catholics, but also stays a vital and historical landmark for the people of Melbourne.

Brian Parker, Risk Engineer is working closely with CCI and the Melbourne Archdiocese to develop a Conservation Management Plan (CMP) for St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“It’s important to preserve the longevity of heritage buildings. A conservation management plan ensures a consistent approach in managing change, repairs, restoration, and maintenance requirements,” he indicates.

“It also involves the need to look at other aspects to ensure the longevity of the building, but also the enjoyment of the people that use the precinct – it is imperative to consider things that contribute to the buildings longevity, such as fire protection, fire detection, and in this day and age the need to fortify security.”

“In the development of a Conservation Management Plan, it is vital to align with the strategic plan of the Archdiocese, its mission, but also other stakeholders that form part of the Catholic community. A Cathedral or church wants to open its doors, and attract people – from worship, funerals, to weddings. A plan allows a more streamlined approach in the management of change, but also ensures a consistent and methodical asset management response. A CMP allows a more strategic approach in how to spend money on the building – opposed to an ad hoc and predominately reactive approach – it provides an overarching and proactive way to assist in setting budgets and protect the organisation’s bottom line.”

Brian explains “a church is more than just its structure – it will also have things like statues, paintings, stained glass, relics, crypts and other variety of things that contribute to the sacredness of these buildings.”

“Clients should be mindful that sometimes restoration and construction works need to be managed – this includes undertaking a project risk assessment before any new works are undertaken, to determine the type of controls that need to be addressed to conserve the building.”

He explains that a CMP definitely gives guidance “as it is a living and breathing document that forms the framework to manage protocols of constructional change, and make sure that future generations can enjoy heritage buildings such as Notre Dame Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

“What happened was bound to happen. The lack of real upkeep and daily attention to such a major building is the cause of this catastrophe.”

Notre Dame - Jean-Michel Leniaud, the president of the scientific council at the National Heritage Institute


Ross Castle

As General Manager, Client for CCI, Ross is a strategic thinker who guides corporate clients through complex challenges to help them achieve strong results. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance, and a Qualified Practicing Insurance Broker with a Master of Business Administration. He is also part of the Australian Institute of Company Directors alumni.

See all articles by Ross

Subscribe to be kept up‑to‑date on CCI Insights