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Cathedrals Like Notre Dame Were The Skyscrapers Of Their Time, Says Architecture and Engineering Professor
On Monday, a fire broke out at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris that completely burned its spire and severely damaged much of the roof. The Paris fire chief reports the structure had been “saved and preserved as a whole,” and French officials have already announced plans to rebuild.
Sinéad Mac Namara is an associate professor at Syracuse University. She teaches structural engineering courses for the School of Architecture and the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences.
Mac Namara says:
“Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame were the skyscrapers of their time.
“Everything about their forms: the flying buttresses, the tall masonry columns, and the stone ribs and vaults at the top (under the wood and lead roof that burned) were all designed with the goal of building as tall as possible and opening up as much of the wall as possible. The buttresses widen the base of the building to resist bending from wind, the interior columns bring the weight of the roof down to the foundations, leaving the walls open for stained glass, and the stone ribs and vaults brace the vertical structure at the top to stop the whole structure collapsing inward.
“In terms of the damage from April 15’s terrible fire, it is important to understand that the wood and lead that burned were not primary structural elements of the cathedral, so theoretically if the masonry frame is intact, then there is reason to believe that the cathedral will be salvageable.
“But, there are a number of things we don’t know yet. Did the fire burn long enough, and hot enough to do damage? Masonry is certainly much, much, better at resisting fire than lumber or steel, but all structural materials lose strength at high temperatures, and expand when heated and contract when cooled. The masonry could have cracked or shifted during the fire in ways that will make it unstable. How much damage did the stone vaults sustain from falling debris as the roof above collapsed? The cathedral has also been extensively renovated numerous times over the years, and any iron or steel elements that might have been added (bolts, clips, brackets, etc.) will have been impacted by the fire and could in turn have caused damage to the masonry.
“All of these issues may make the restoration more difficult and more expensive.”
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