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Palace of Westminster restoration challenges revealed

As divides in Theresa May’s government continue to widen, the cracks within the basement of the Palace of Westminister are also in desperate need of repair.  

Key challenges facing the restoration and renewal programme to preserve the Palace of Westminster have been revealed by its design director.

The programme is set to begin in the mid-2020s and will see the House of Lords and House of Commons vacate the building for an estimated period of six to eight years, design director Andy Piper told New Civil Engineer.

Debates in both the Lords and Commons in early 2018 resulted in Parliament agreeing that the best and most cost-effective way to carry out the restoration and renewal of the palace in one single phase would be to temporarily move out of the building.

At present, however, work is underway to ensure that the palace can remain operational until the programme can begin. The challenges facing the palace are amplified by the fact that it forms part of the UNESCO Westminster World Heritage Site.

Piper said: “It is very hard for us to do any works here. The approvals process to just drill a single hole is time-consuming. It requires a lot of drawing and a lot of detail.”

Another challenge being faced during current works is the fact that the time taken to complete the work is limited by the fact that work must be conducted around the business of the two houses of Parliament.

Piper explained: “We are massively constrained by working around the business of the two houses.

“Most of our work now is done at nights or compressed into recess periods and the scale of what we have got to do for the restoration and renewal programme is not possible to do in recess periods.”

One of the key issues that will be addressed as part of the programme is the fact that in the basement of the building, steam systems, gas lines and water pipes are often laid one on top of another, alongside electricity wires, broadcasting cables and other vulnerable equipment.

Many of the systems passed their life expectancy decades ago, and leaks from the steam system could potentially cause significant damage and disruption to Parliament were they to occur in the wrong place, such as next to a major power supply.

Under the programme there will therefore be a replacement of the antiquated heating, ventilation, electrical, water and drainage systems.

“Many of the drainage systems we see are still from the Victorian times. Some of them are 130-years-old,” Piper explained.

“The way the building is used today is radically different from what is was designed to do, except the procedural side. So, the chambers still function as they did function then.”

Speaking of the difficulty posed by steam in the building, Piper said: “There are two boiler rooms in the Palace and they feed a steam loop and these steam heat exchanges then turn steam into hot water and it is hot water that goes through all of the radiators.

“Steam is something that we would be desperate to get rid of. It is hard to safely work around. It is very hard to integrate it with renewable technologies. Temperatures and pressures of steam are far in excess of what a modern renewable system would use, so it makes it very hard to put sustainable measures in place.”

In addition, another big problem is the presence of asbestos, which is prolonging any remedial works being undertaken.

Asbestos has been found in areas across the Palace, including the lagging and gaskets of pipework and ductwork, within insulation boards and fire linings, and even within some paint.

Specialist asbestos removal procedures are therefore required due to the potential for asbestos fibres to spread and contaminate the large network of voids throughout the building.

Westminster Palace was built using sand-coloured limestone from Anston Quarry in Yorkshire due to it being ideal for elaborate carving. However, the stone quickly began to decay during the 19th century while little was done to prevent it. As a result, the renewal of stonework is necessary. Work is set to be carried out to address wear and tear, leaking roofs, decaying windows, and old plumbing.

The programme also includes plans for the repair and refurbishment of windows within the Palace because most of its approximately 4,000 windows no longer provide weather resistance and do not close properly, resulting in significant heat loss from the building.

The restoration and renewal programme will also see work undertaken to ensure that fire safety systems throughout the palace are brought in line with modern day standards through, for example, effective fire compartmentation between sections of the building. At present, the building contains 6,969 fire detection devices including 2,584 smoke detectors, 810 manual call points and 1,500 fire extinguishers.

In the palace, over time, cabling for telephone and communications have been laid over old and redundant ones, which has made repairs and upgrades difficult to carry out due to the congested space and not knowing where the original cables lead to. It is hoped that the restoration and renewal programme will ensure users of the Palace will be able to use enhanced information and communication technology necessary for a more modern Parliament.

Piper said: “We have just run out of space to run any new pipe work and we have run out of access to get to the old pipework. That is why we just need to shut it down, strip it all out and start again.”

Plumbing within the Palace is also in need of repair or replacement due to the initial installation of cast iron guttering set into the stonework making it impossible to detect any deterioration of the guttering until damage to stonework or windows becomes visible, sometimes months or even years later.

The restoration and renewal programme will also see repairs and conservation work to the historic interiors of the Palace. For instance, the stone vault and the mosaic tiles are in urgent need of conservation and repair in certain areas due to leaking roofs and the humidity created by the vast number of people that go through Parliament each day.

Speaking of the progress being made before the restoration and renewal programme can begin, Piper said: “The only two contracts we have let out so far are for BDP, who are our principal architects, and Jacobs who are our programme and project managers.

“They are the two contracts we have let today to help us set the brief then establish the timescale it will take to deliver that brief and then the cost to deliver that brief. And then we will take that back to the two houses [of Parliament] eventually to make a decision on whether or not that is what they want us to do.” 

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Readers' comments (4)

  • I suppose that architectural firm is BDB and not BEP as stated.

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  • Sorry I made it wrong as well. Shall be BDP.

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  • Whilst appreciating its status symbol, and the fact it is well-connected to a lot of existing Whitehall infrastructure, surely the better solution would be to maintain it as a museum (perhaps the requirements for the refurb could be then less onerous as less need to make it suitable for 600+ MPs).

    Then, a new parliament with an "in the round" type debating chamber, similar to the Scottish Parliament and the Bundestag could then be created. This could really improve the way that politics is conducted in this country as the curved debating chamber reduces the concept of opposing sides, and could have the effect of making Parliament less confrontational.

    Debates about whether its location should still be in London are probably pie-in-the-sky, however by de-centralising decision making out of London, it would improve the balance of our cities. Currently London is the chief administrative, financial and cultural city (along with arguably best for civil engineering); moving Parliament out of London would go a long way to resolving this, albeit this is unlikely to happen in practice.

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  • As an aside, the original choice of stone for the carving presents a classic example of ease-of-construction vs suitability for use in the long term!

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