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https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2021/02/12/parliaments-environmental-history-in-4-objects/

Parliament’s environmental history in 4 objects

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This blog was written by Henrik Schoenefeldt, Professor of Sustainability in Architectural Heritage, University of Kent. For the last four years he has been seconded to the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme to undertake a large research project in Parliament’s nineteenth-century ventilation system.

When using the term architectural heritage in the context of the Palace of Westminster, what first comes to mind are the significant interiors of the House of Lords chamber and library. These were designed by the architects Charles Barry (1795-1860) and A. W. N. Pugin (1812-1852). What is less well-known is the fact that the Palace has also a rich environmental heritage. The Palace was designed to incorporate a sophisticated system of ventilation and climate control and this significantly influenced its architecture. The many gothic towers on the roof of the Palace of Westminster, for instance, are not merely architectural embellishments but the functional features of a nineteenth-century system of stack ventilation.

As an architect and architectural historian my research interests are in sustainable conservation and the history of environmental design in architecture. Over the last nine years I have undertaken research into the design of the Palace of Westminster from an environmental perspective. The research covers the period from 1835 to the present, and its objective was to gain an in-depth understanding of the history, design and performance of the Palace’s historic ventilation and climate control systems. This research has yielded various academic journal articles and it is also the subject of my recent book Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament - David Boswell Reid and Disruptive Environmentalism published by Routledge. The research project and how it is informing the restoration of the Houses of Parliament is explored in this short documentary film, 'Restoring the Palace’ from 2019.

This research involved the study of several thousands of historic documents. These included architectural drawings, sketches, letters, technical reports, diaries, photographs, paintings as well as Parliamentary papers. These records are spread across various archives. In addition to the Parliamentary Archives, large volumes of documents are held at The National Archives at Kew, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Historic England’s architectural archives in Swindon. The Parliamentary Art Collection in Westminster also holds numerous historic paintings and prints.

For this post I have selected four artefacts from the Parliamentary Archives, each giving an insight into a different aspect of the environmental history of the Houses of Parliament.

 The origin of the central tower

Object 1: Photograph of a Watercolour of the Palace of Westminster, by Thomas Allom, circa 1844. Parliamentary Archives, ARC/VAR/279
Object 1: Photograph of a Watercolour of the Palace of Westminster, by Thomas Allom, circa 1844. Parliamentary Archives, ARC/VAR/279

Object 1 is a photograph of a watercolour painting by Thomas Allom, which Charles Barry presented to Tsar Nicholas I during his visit to London in 1844. It was produced whilst the Palace was still under construction. It shows the architect’s vision at this moment but it differs from the final design completed in the 1860s. The catalogue entry for this artefact notes that the ‘peculiarity of this drawing lies in the design of the immensely tall central tower.’ This peculiar feature was not an architectural extravagance, but the functional feature of a ventilation system that had been developed by the Scottish physician Dr David Boswell Reid in the early 1840s. The tower had not been part of the Barry’s original architectural design. It was added four years after he and Pugin had won the architectural competition for the rebuilding of the Palace. From 1840, when Reid was commissioned to develop a ventilation system for the Palace of Westminster, Barry had to substantially modify his scheme to integrate this new system into his architectural scheme. To be effective, Reid believed, the tower had to be as tall as possible. The watercolour shows a tower that had the same height as the Victoria Tower and Elizabeth Tower.

Diagram outlining concept behind Reid’s original proposal for a central ventilation tower (author’s own drawing)
Diagram outlining concept behind Reid’s original proposal for a central ventilation tower (author’s own drawing)

This scheme was the boldest, yet only one of several alternative design proposals for the central tower. Letters and sketches, exchanged by Reid and Barry between 1839 and 1846, reveal that its design was subject of extensive discussions, and due to additional costs, it also became the subject of Parliamentary inquiries between 1841 and 1842. Allom’s watercolour illustrates the substantial architectural impact that Reid’s original yet unrealised plans would have had on Barry’s architecture.

Reid’s original plans, however, were abandoned in 1846. His idea of ventilating the entire Palace of Westminster with the aid of one single tower was abandoned. It was superseded by an alternative scheme involving an array of smaller ventilation shafts. The two debating chambers were no longer connected to the central tower. Instead they were equipped with separate ventilation shafts. The central tower was still built, but Barry changed its design and function. The final design for this tower is shown in pencil sketches in the RIBA drawing collection, a copy of which is held by the Parliamentary Archives.

Object 2: Sketches for central tower, Charles Barry, after 1846. Parliamentary Archives, ARC/RIBA/219
Object 2: Sketches for central tower, Charles Barry, after 1846. Parliamentary Archives, ARC/RIBA/219

Although Barry had reduced its height, it was still the third tallest tower. It was much larger than the new ventilation shafts of the two debating chambers, yet it only fulfilled a minor function within the ventilating system. The story of the central tower is explored in chapters 4 to 6 of my new book.

The intangible heritage of environmental control and monitoring practices

Whilst some documents, such as the two drawings of the central tower, illustrate the evolution of the design for the 19th-century ventilation system, other records provide insights into how these historic systems were operated, how well they performed historically and also why and how the design of the system was altered after it was completed. One important source for the study of the system’s performance and operation are the original logbooks used by the engineers responsible for monitoring and controlling the system. In contrast to the automated systems of modern air-conditioned buildings, in the nineteenth-century system climate control was manual work, and it required the constant attention of those in charge of its operation.

Object 3: Register of temperature control and ventilation for the House of Commons, January to April 1854. Parliamentary Archives, OOW/5/2
Object 3: Register of temperature control and ventilation for the House of Commons, January to April 1854. Parliamentary Archives, OOW/5/2

The Parliamentary Archive holds several sets of historic logbooks, which include those used inside the House of Commons over the first two years of its occupation. They cover the years 1853 and 1854. These books contain printed registers with columns for measurements and margins for written commentaries. The staff used them to record readings of the temperature and humidity, which were taken in different locations within the debating chamber at hourly intervals, but they also kept notes on technical issues, such as the impact of the weather or external smoke pollution. On 6 March 1854, for instance, staff wrote that the atmosphere was ‘very foggy and charged with smoke’ and that the supply was switched to central hall as ‘that from the Clock Tower very smoky’. On another day it was noted that a ‘foggy atmosphere loaded with smoke of the neighbourhood penetrated the building’.

In addition, it also contained notes describing how the indoor climate was experienced by MPs and other users of the chamber. The latter included messages that the technical staff had received from the Speaker of the House of Commons or the Serjeant-at-Arms. On 13 April 1853, for example, staff commented that the ‘Speaker complained of draughts round his head’ and on 31 March they wrote that the Speaker was feeling ‘too warm’ and on 7 April the Serjeant-at-Arms ‘wished the House a little cooler’.

At first sight the information contained inside these logbooks may appear insignificant and mundane, but in research concerned with the environmental history of architecture, such documents are very important. They offer intimate insights into its operational history. The study of these documents illuminates how closely the history of the systems is intertwined with the history of facilities management in Westminster. The latter is the largely hidden history of technical staff and their working practices. These working practices have to be understood as part of the intangible heritage of environmental control. In my research I have used these logbooks and several hundred other sources to study the post-occupancy history of the Houses of Parliament in great detail. Amongst these other sources are reports of scientific studies on air flow, thermal comfort and the transmission of viruses that were inside the debating chambers. A paper, published in Building Research and Information, traces this history over the period from 1854 to 1950.

The second rebuilding of the House of Chamber, 1944-1950

For 90 years the historic system remained in active use. Its performance was the subject of multiple scientific investigations and various alterations were made to improve the effectiveness of the historic system. In the House of Commons this process of gradual adaptation came to a sudden end in 1941, when the original debating chamber was destroyed during air raids. In 1943 and 1944 the House of Commons appointed a Select Committee to coordinate the development of a design for a new chamber. This Committee engaged the architect Giles Gilbert Scott to develop an architectural scheme, and also involved the engineer Dr Oscar Faber to ensure that issues of ventilation and climate control were considered from the outset. The Parliamentary Archives holds various records relating to the rebuilding of the House of Commons. One of these records are the original hand drawn floor plans and sections that the Faber produced for the Select Committee in July 1944. These drawings outline the general concept for a modern ventilation and air conditioning system and also show shows how it was to be integrated into Scott’s architectural scheme for the new chamber. It shows, for instances, that the air apertures were carefully integrated into ornamental woodwork of the ceiling, galleries and walls.

Object 4: House of Commons Rebuilding - Ventilation and Air Conditioning scheme, July 1944. Parliamentary Archives, ARC/PRO/WORK11/425.
Object 4: House of Commons Rebuilding - Ventilation and Air Conditioning scheme, July 1944. Parliamentary Archives, ARC/PRO/WORK11/425.

Faber’s concept scheme of July 1944 took six years to fully develop and construct, and Faber also had to collaborate with scientists and engineers from the National Physical Laboratory and Medical Research Council to verify its feasibility through a series of physical experiments with models. The purpose of these experiments was to develop a new configuration of inlets that would protect MPs from currents of incoming air, which had been a long-standing issue inside the historic chamber. In the nineteenth-century chamber the fresh air was introduced through openings in the floor, which at times caused a chill around Members' feet and legs. It was the subject of regular complaints from MPs. In the new chamber, in contrast the air was injected from the top, using inlets inside the wooden ceiling, and at mid-level, using another set of inlets underneath the galleries. The latter allowed air to be introduced in horizontal currents above the heads of MPs. The development of the modern chamber from an environmental perspective is explored in the journal article ‘Delivery of occupant satisfaction in the House of Commons, 1950–2019’, which was published in Building and Cities in June 2020.

Going beyond the study of the past

These four objects have offered some insights into the history of the Houses of Parliament from an environmental perspective. These objects have allowed us to uncover the intangible heritage of historic operational practices as well as tangible heritage of the systems’physical architecture. This history, however, cannot be treated solely as a matter of the past. The environmental history of the Palace of Westminster is ongoing. The current systems, which were introduced after the end of the Second World War to replace the original nineteenth-century system, are also part of this history. Moreover, climate change will require architects to re-engage with historic buildings and their environmental legacies. Architectural historians can play a vital role in helping to uncover these legacies.

Henrik Schoenefeldt

Bibliography:

Schoenefeldt, H. Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament - David Boswell Reid and Disruptive Environmentalism (London: Routledge, 2021) ISBN 9781138741522

Schoenefeldt, H. (2020). Delivery of occupant satisfaction in the House of Commons, 1950–2019. Buildings and Cities, 1(1), 141–163. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bc.57

Schoenefeldt, H. (2019) The House of Commons: a precedent for post-occupancy evaluation. Building Research & Information, 47:6, 635-665, http://doi.org/10.1080/09613218.2019.1547547

Schoenefeldt, H. (2018). The historic ventilation system of the House of Commons, 1840–52: Re-visiting David Boswell Reid’s environmental legacy. The Antiquaries Journal, 98, 245-295. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0003581518000549 

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