Balliol College was established in 1263 and is one of the oldest colleges of the University of Oxford. With
almost 400 undergraduate students and an equal number of post graduates, Balliol is also one of the University’s largest colleges. Highly sought-after as a conference venue out of term time, Balliol’s 11 meeting rooms and 260 bedrooms are in constant use year-round.

Client comment

The College is delighted with its new fire system and very appreciative of the service we received from Chris Lewis Fire & Security. Their engineers provided sound advice and recommendations and made what could have been a very difficult and disruptive process, very smooth and painless.

Paul Mulford, Clerk of Works, Balliol College, Oxford

balliolProject background

Chris Lewis Fire & Security has maintained Balliol College’s fire protection system since 2005. The original system was installed in the late 1960s and although the field devices have since been replaced, the original cabling was still in use. After thirty years, the 10,000 metres of cabling was rapidly deteriorating and urgently needed replacing.

Paul Mulford, Balliol College’s Clerk of Works commented, “Our fire system was not only reaching the end of its useful life, but needed upgrading to meet today’s regulatory standards. We conducted a thorough fire risk assessment and after reviewing the results Chris Lewis’ engineers advised us that the college required a fire system that met Level Two protection standards. That meant a significant upgrade was needed.”

At Chris Lewis Fire & Security we always try to provide clients with the best value for their budget. Where possible we re-use legacy equipment and enhance functionality through system upgrades. However in this instance Balliol’s existing fire detectors had been discontinued so finding compatible replacements would have proved time-consuming and expensive. In addition the College wanted to move away from a closed protocol system to open protocol – where they would not be tied to one manufacturer for upgrades and additional equipment. Having assessed every option it was determined that the comprehensive replacement of the system would be more cost-effective in the long run.

We have a longstanding relationship with Oxford University and have installed and currently maintain many of the fire and security systems across its sites. Like many of Oxford’s colleges a significant portion of Balliol’s buildings are grade one listed. It was therefore important that the system we designed was sensitive to the
buildings’ fabric and aesthetics.

Paul Mulford added, “The college is in use 24/7 and practically 365 days a year. The upgrade we were undertaking was extensive and the College Buildings Committee was extremely nervous about inconveniencing staff, students and conference guests. However, we have a very close relationship with Chris Lewis Fire & Security and were confident that they had the skills and experience to design and install our new system without any unnecessary disruption.”

The Solution

Our engineers conducted an in-depth site survey to assess Balliol’s fire protection requirements. In order to meet current fire regulations the new system needed to be considerably larger than the original. The final design included over 1,000 detectors – three times as many as the system it was replacing.

The engineers faced three challenges. Because it was essential that the fire system was maintained at all times, the new system had to be installed before the old system could be decommissioned. It was therefore impossible to lay the new cables in the original channels and our engineers were tasked with finding new cabling routes. This was to prove a challenge due to the age and nature of many of the buildings – several date back as far as the thirteenth century and, as well as being grade one listed, have solid stone walls, floors and ceilings.

We worked closely with Balliol’s Clerk of Works to assess each building individually and design the installation to minimise the impact on its fabric and aesthetics. This included hiding much of cabling in existing trunking and conduits. Where cabling couldn’t be installed radio technology was used to network remote devices to the fire panels.

Balliol college

The second challenge was installing the new system without causing disruption to the running of the college. Paul Mulford commented, “Chris Lewis Fire & Security’s engineers were very sensitive to the environment they were working in. They worked closely with me and the Accommodation Officer to schedule planned works around the college’s busy diary and were extremely flexible, often having to reschedule work at very short notice.”

The final challenge for the engineering team lay in Balliol’s 17m high Great Hall. When the alarm was upgraded in the Hall, the engineers had to erect a six story scaffolding tower to reach smoke detectors mounted in the ceiling. The work could only be completed when the Hall was not in use, which was limited to an eight day window during the project. This opportunity was so rare that Balliol’s own facilities team used the scaffolding to inspect the roof timbers for the first time in 75 years.


Balliol’s new fire alarm system is divided into six separate zones, each networked onto a single platform and control panel. If an alarm is activated it will only sound in the affected area and therefore not cause unnecessary disruption to other parts of the college. By integrating the six systems onto one platform Balliol can centrally manage and monitor every device from a single point.

Paul Mulford commented, “The system is simple and intuitive to use. Our Lodge Administrator and Porter are extremely happy with it. If an alarm goes off they can easily identify which device is sounding and, when necessary, they can shut off a zone without affecting the whole system.”

The college’s 23 staircases, off which student and staff accommodation is located, incorporate fire doors and emergency evacuation hatches which are normally locked. In the event of a fire, the alarm system’s ‘cause and effect’ programming will trigger localised alarms and release those doors and hatches necessary for safe evacuation.

In sensitive areas such as the grade one listed library and the Great Hall where standard detectors would have compromised the aesthetics of the interiors and it would be difficult to maintain equipment, we fitted Vesda air aspirating systems. These were incorporated into existing air conditioning and humidity systems
and can be maintained at ground level.

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