Detailing Parliament’s past to protect its future

To begin to protect the UK’s iconic Parliament buildings, an extensive survey has been completed to understand what needs to be done

Crumbling stones, cracking ceilings and warping windows in the Houses of Parliament were the subject of several thousand hours of investigations by teams of experts from across the UK as part of work to plan the essential restoration of the Palace of Westminster.

More than 50 skilled engineers, architectural surveyors, ecologists, acoustics experts and lighting specialists spent a combined 4,700 hours over the parliamentary recess periods in 2021 investigating the 150-year-old building, creating the most detailed record of it ever.

A total of 2,343 rooms and spaces were examined over the summer and conference recesses, with experts recording thousands of issues – including cracks in stonework and widespread water damage – and analysing the complex network of outdated electrical and mechanical systems. The investigations are an essential step in the restoration and renewal of the Palace.

The Palace in numbers

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palace is one of most recognisable buildings in the world. The building is constructed from Anston limestone and has a floor area equivalent to 16 football pitches; it houses 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and three miles of passageways. The Palace is at high risk of sudden failure from a major fire, flood or stone falls. The heating, ventilation, water and electrical systems are outdated and steam pipes run alongside electrical cables throughout. In fact, more than 40,000 problems with the building have been reported since 2017.

In the basement there are 128 plant rooms and 98 risers, only one of which has been fully restored to modern standards. There are seven miles of steam pipes and 250 miles of cabling, all of which need to be stripped out, and 1,000 spaces contain asbestos. Thousands of ventilation shafts spreading the length and breadth of the building need upgrading to protect against a major fire. A team of fire wardens patrol the building 24/7 to spot and manage fires or incidents that could cause one, and a new water misting system was installed in the past few years. It costs £2m a week to maintain the building, with the annual cost of maintenance and ongoing projects doubling in recent years – from £62m in 2016 to £127m in 2019, with total costs amounting to £369m over the four-year period.

Historical details add to the difficulty; the sewage ejector system installed in 1888 is still in use today. There are more than 11,000 historic items, including furniture, clocks, silver and ceramics – all of which will need to be temporarily removed and taken care of during restoration – while most of the nearly 4,000 bronze windows need repair. Issues were recorded with many of the historic features, including the original Victorian stained-glass windows, which are warping and sagging due to age.

Despite the current programme of maintenance work, the building is falling apart faster than it can be fixed and is in urgent need of a programme of essential restoration. Parliament will be invited to approve the detailed restoration plan in 2023.

Devil in the detail

Work was also done to understand the provenance of many quirky candle and gaslight fittings, some of which were discovered to have been turned upside down when converted to electric power 100 years ago. Further investigation is continuing, but it is thought the Palace may contain the oldest still-in-use gas lighting system in the world – this is in New Palace Yard, and consists of a mix of original installations, fittings that were put in place later during the reign of George VI, and modern refurbishments.

The light fittings throughout the Palace represent nearly every phase of technology implemented in each decade since its construction. The building has many highest-quality fittings by Augustus Pugin, Charles Barry or George Gilbert Scott, but there are also many high-quality replicas; the screw heads and junctions are being researched to determine their age as each fitting has been subject to many adaptations over the years. Some gas fittings or armatures/frameworks are still in use, having been adapted to electrification or later modified in the 1950s. This includes many fittings that were installed during the 1880s when the Palace was first electrified.

A range of hexagonal fittings have evolved since the 1920s to become the primary aesthetic throughout the palace; the oldest have been traced by the survey to be local to the Central Lobby. Many Flemish lanterns throughout the dining areas and library corridors are from the 1920s, and the survey has shown them to be of greater quality than previously assumed. Several large Flemish candle chandeliers – which survived the great fire of 1834 that destroyed the original palace – were also studied and recorded.

Survey specifics:

  • Visual condition surveys: these major visual walkaround surveys inspected 2,343 spaces to gather information on the condition and structural defects of the building

  • Bird surveys: these assess the bird presence at the Houses of Parliament, and involve listening to and recording birds at peak times of the day, including dawn and dusk

  • Ecology surveys: the Victoria Tower is famous for nesting peregrine falcons, where the high-level intricate stonework replicates their natural habitat in an urban setting. These surveys looked at the internal roof space voids and plant rooms to look for signs of nesting birds and bats that would need to be identified before any construction works took place

  • Windows design study: experts surveyed and recorded the operation and fixings of some of the nearly 3,000 original windows in the Palace of Westminster, from original Victorian bronze-framed windows to magnificent stained glass in Westminster Hall

  • Basement inspection: surveyors accessed spaces within the cramped basement to record and view structural arrangements. These visits allowed surveyors a better understanding of the types of works that will be required to renovate and renew critical services in the building, many of which are over 100 years old

  • Door study: the Palace has a wide range of ancient and historic doors that are central to the history of the nation. Restoration and Renewal surveyors are using detective work to establish their materials, finish and methods of artistic ironmongery. The survey performed a visual inspection of heritage doors in Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Chapel and the Central Lobby. They will be assessed against requirements for fire resistance, security and acoustic properties

  • Room study: a visual inspection consisting of 20 spaces including the Lords Chamber, Libraries and Westminster Hall. The surveyors reviewed and recorded existing mechanical, electrical and plant details. This survey will allow the surveyors to obtain a better understanding of the types of work that that may be required to service these rooms and the impact on their heritage.


Into the 21st Century

As well as updating the Palace to current fire safety standards, there are other considerations. Acoustics experts, considering how to improve audibility within the building, walked 240km, measuring 80 rooms, and ran 300 individual acoustics tests, taking 2,000 measurements. The building contains four floors with 65 different levels, meaning it is not well designed for people with disabilities. Some areas can be very difficult to access, and this too will need to be considered as part of the programme of works.

Sarah Johnson, Chief Executive of the Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body, said: “The essential programme to restore the deteriorating Palace of Westminster will protect our world-famous Parliament for generations to come. These critical and complex investigations are already informing our detailed restoration plan, which will for the first time set out a true sense of the costs and timescales of the much-needed work.”

Throughout 2022, even more detailed surveys – including intrusive surveys into the structure of the Palace – will be completed. The Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal scheme will create thousands of new jobs and apprenticeships while boosting traditional and cutting-edge skills, involving craftspeople and businesses from across the UK.

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Leader of the House of Commons, said: “The Houses of Parliament building is recognised the world over as a symbol of our nation, but this building requires a considerable level of care to keep it working and needs an essential programme of restoration work. We must be able to justify this project to taxpayers. That’s why it’s so important to understand and map out the restoration work needed to protect the building – so that the focus is on those essential works necessary to preserve the Palace for future generations.” 

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