Condition of the Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster dates from the mid-1800s. It was a highly advanced building with innovative design features for its time; a purpose-built home for Parliament.
Since its construction, many features have never undergone major renovation. The heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated and improvements to fire safety are needed. The cumulative effects of pollution and lack of maintenance is causing extensive decay to stonework. The roofs are leaking, asbestos is present throughout, and corrosion has occurred in gutters and downpipes and internal plumbing regularly fails, causing visible and sometimes irreversible damage to the Palace’s carved stonework ceilings and Pugin-designed historic interiors.
Maintaining the building today
Parliament’s Strategic Estates is responsible for maintaining and improving buildings across the Parliamentary Estate, whilst working closely with the maintenance team within the Department of Facilities. Rigorous checks and surveys of the Palace are carried out regularly to ensure it remains safe and the risk of catastrophic system failure and disruption to Parliament is kept to a minimum.
To date, all intrusive renovation work has been carried out around sittings of Parliament. This approach has permitted only the minimum essential maintenance and piecemeal replacement of systems at highest risk of failure. This is not sustainable in the long term. Currently, the speed at which the work can be carried out is slower than the rate at which the building is deteriorating so the backlog of essential repairs (and in turn the risk of system failure) is growing significantly over time.
The problem of asbestos
One of the biggest problems affecting the repair and maintenance of the Palace is the existence of asbestos throughout the building.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that became a popular building material in the mid-twentieth century. It was widely used in many building applications because of its resistance to fire and insulation properties. It was used extensively in the Palace, particularly during the post-war rebuilding period. It is now found in many areas, such as lagging and gaskets of pipework and ductwork, within insulation boards and fire linings, even within some paint. Where asbestos cannot be practically removed it is securely encased and regularly tested and inspected.
Essential building services
The Mechanical, Electrical and Public Health (MEP) systems in the Palace are the arteries of the building, providing essential services such as heating, drainage, lighting, water, ventilation and communications. They have a finite life and need to be replaced when they reach the end of that life.
Pipework and cabling
One of the most critical MEP services in the Palace is the steam-based heating and distribution system running through the entire length of the basements. Some pipes are up to 130 years old yet most have not been replaced. This is in part due to the difficulty in accessing them; any asbestos must first be safely removed or contained; and because of the need to carry out repair works around sittings of parliament. For decades, time constraints meant newer pipes and cables were laid over old and redundant ones, making the space extremely congested.
The normal life expectancy of these systems is 25-30 years and elements of these systems require replacement on a more frequent basis.
Tackling the problems today
A programme of MEP work began in 2010. It was designed to buy time until a longer term approach to tackling the problems was identified. However, this project has only replaced 15 per cent of the 128 plant rooms and associated infrastructure considered highest risk.
Fabric of the building
The Palace of Westminster was built in the mid-1800s as a state-of-the-art purpose-built home for Parliament. The architect was the renowned Charles Barry, assisted by Augustus Welby Pugin. The oldest part of the Parliamentary Estate, Westminster Hall, was built by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, in 1099. Westminster Hall survived the fire of 1834, as did the early 16th century Cloister of St Stephen’s College and the 13th century Chapel of St Mary Undercroft.
The backlog of conservation work and repairs to the fabric of the building is largely a result of the difficulty of carrying out work around sittings of Parliament combined with decades of under-investment. Pollution and lack of maintenance is causing significant decay to stonework. The vast majority of the Palace’s 4,000 windows do not close properly, letting water in and heat out. Internal plumbing constantly fails and the cumulative effects of wear and tear are evident in all the principal spaces.
The Palace was built using Anston limestone because it was cheaper and ideal for elaborate carving. However, the stone quickly began to decay and very little was done to prevent its decline during the 19th century. Some stone cleaning and restoration work was carried out in the 1980s and 1990s but there is still a huge amount of essential work to be done.
Internally, the original linings are Painswick and Caen stone, chosen because they were ideal for carving. Today, much of it is in need of cleaning or restoration due to wear and tear, leaking roofs, decaying windows and antiquated plumbing.
There are around 4,000 windows, from basic casements in rooms and corridors, to the ornate glass panels that allow light to fill the many hallways and chambers of the Palace. This vast amount of glass, much of it set in bronze framework, no longer provides weather resistance and is responsible for significant heat loss from the Palace.
Cast iron roofs
The cast iron tiled roofs were installed on wrought iron structures in the mid-1800s, and used innovative, leading-edge technology. They have never undergone major renovation or repair. Now, 160 years on, the roofs are leaking, causing significant damage to the stonework and historic interiors of the building. To avoid further damage to the fabric of the building, a phased programme of roof repairs is already underway to ensure the building is watertight before any major internal restoration and renewal work begins.
Protection from fire
After the old Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire, Charles Barry put fire safety firmly at the centre of his designs for the new Palace by using cast iron and stone. However, when it came to the magnificent interiors, he and Augustus Welby Pugin used vast quantities of combustible materials. This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids they created to aid ventilation, had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.
Fire safety today
Fire safety systems are in place throughout the Palace to ensure the building is safe to use, but they are antiquated. Significant work needs to be done to bring these systems up to modern day standards. Fire safety officers are also required to patrol the Palace 24 hours each day to spot signs of fire. A fire safety improvement programme is underway but given the constraints around access, prevalence of asbestos, and the need to carry out work around sittings of Parliament, the scope of this work is limited.
Following the Windsor Castle fire in 1992, improved compartmentation was one of the measures recommended for all the Royal Palaces. Compartmentation between floors and walls slows the spread of fire or smoke by containing it within a single area or ‘compartment’ of a building. This work was begun in the 1990s but is incomplete due to its extremely invasive nature and because the building is in constant use. It is also likely that high levels of asbestos will be found in the areas that need to be compartmentalised.
A fully resilient and comprehensive fire safety system is needed to minimise the risk of fire damage to the building and make it safer for users.