How the familiar external image of the Houses of Parliament was determined by a stack system for the ventilation of the building was described by Henrik Schoenefeldt, Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Architecture at the University of Kent, when he addressed members of the Rotary Club of Dover.
The restoration of the Houses of Parliament is not without complexity due to the fact it comprises a World Heritage Site as well as presenting challenges over the occupation or otherwise of the structure during restoration and the cost involved. Following a 2012 inquiry a committee recommended that to bring the structure up to C21 standards all members of the Houses of Parliament should vacate the building together with all staff. If there was no vacating the restoration was likely to cost in the region of £5.5bn and take 31-35 years, if there was partial vacating the cost would be in the region of £4.42bn over an 11 – 15 year period while if the restoration proceeded with a complete vacation of the building the cost would be in the region of £3.87bn over a 6 – 10 year period. Parliamentarians have voted for complete vacation of the building.
It was in the early C19 that a fire at the Palace of Westminster provided an opportunity to rebuild the place and a design produced by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin was selected for the rebuild but a Scot called David Reid came up with a centralised ventilation system where fresh air was introduced through air shafts inside the Victoria Tower and what is now known as Queen Elizabeth 11 Tower (housing the famous clock Big Ben). In addition to the two towers, which had been envisaged by Barry, a third Central Tower was considered necessary. With all these features in place air would be drawn into the building through the air shafts and provided to all rooms and chambers via the basement of the building with the assistance of steam powered fans while the Central Tower would act as an ‘exhaust pipe’ for hot air to be ejected. The stack ventilation system was adopted but the concept of the Central Tower was replaced by a series of smaller towers or turrets on the roof line to create today’s familiar outline. Reid’s system was subsequently modified to improve ventilation and air quality but lasted to the 1940s.
Mr Schoenefeldt explained that following the destruction of the House of Commons in World War 2 a more modern air conditioning system to replace what was thought to be an antiquated arrangement was introduced but the proposed wholesale refurbishment on offer enables the opportunity to revisit the Victorian historic system as stack ventilation is seen currently as a facility that creates a sustainable system in large buildings. Research carried out by Henrik Schoenefeldt suggests that the Victorian legacy could inform the proposed restoration in a sustainable way for contemporary and future standards to be met because former coal fires, furnaces and gas lights utilised to influence the air chambers no longer existed or were required. 25% of the building known as the Palace of Westminster was made up as space simply for the circulation of air – “it is simply a hollow building” said Mr Schoenefeldt where over the time a huge clustering of services for water, power and heating in the form of pipes and wires had accumulated and the restoration provided an opportunity to remove all of these and to replace them with modern and comprehensive facilities for a C21 standard. Reconstructing Parliament’s C19 ventilation system brought together Heritage and Technology to provide sustainability.
Mr Schoenefeldt is on secondment from the University of Kent to Parliament as part of the Design arrangements for Parliament’s refurbishment.