The Restoration of the Palace of Westminster
As well as creating new structures and buildings, part of construction is about the restoration of historical buildings too. Preserving structures and maintaining places that are part of a society’s history requires specialist skills and the finished work ensures future generations can enjoy these places for years (maybe even centuries) to come.
Our focus here is on the Palace of Westminster in London, a prime example of how the construction industry supports history. It is due to undergo a ‘Restoration and Renewal’ project, beginning in the mid 2020s, which you can learn about below.
The Palace of Westminster is of course well known for being the site of a failed assassination attempt on the life of King James I by Guy Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Still to this day, the UK commemorates this day, and is well known as bonfire night.
The history of the Palace of Westminster
The Houses of Parliament is the informal name of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Houses of Parliament actually sits within the Palace of Westminster, where MPs meet and discuss government issues concerning the UK.
The Palace has an extensive history, with an initial building constructed in the 11th century, but the Palace you see today was reconstructed by architect Charles Barry after a great fire in 1834. Barry built in the perpendicular Gothic style, with a lot of rich detail both inside and out. Barry received a knighthood for his work, even after his estimated construction time of six years went over 30 and the estimated cost of £724,986 actually came in at over £2 million!
During the Blitz in WWII, on the night of 10 May 1941, the House of Commons Chamber was destroyed by bombs, and the Clock Tower (which houses Big Ben) was damaged amongst other parts of the building. Winston Churchill had the Palace rebuilt again, saying:
“It is the citadel of liberty; it is the foundation of our laws; its traditions and privileges are as lively today as when it broke the arbitrary power of the Crown. The House has shown itself able to face the possibility of national destruction with classical composure.”
Why is the Palace being restored?
The Palace is a big part of UK history. Many important events and political decisions have been made within its walls, so it will always be looked after to ensure everyone can enjoy and appreciate it in the future. However, it’s currently needing repairs so often that it makes sense to have a large scale restoration completed, rather than constant smaller fixes. In 2019 a broken pipe halted House of Commons proceedings, something which should be avoided where possible!
The restoration is challenging for a few reasons, one being the sheer size of it. The Palace has a floorplate the size of 16 football pitches with 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, three miles of passageways, four floors, and 65 different levels. Sourcing the materials and skilled workers required to restore a building of this size and age will be costly.
Risk of fire
Due to its age, the Palace was not designed with modern fire safety in mind. The removal of asbestos, replacement of its 4,000 bronze windows, and new access points will all bring it up to a safer standard should a fire occur. New materials and furniture will also be fire-safe, as much of the historic furniture will potentially be moved out or stored safely after the restoration is complete.
Urgent work is needed to fix and maintain the beautiful and intricate stonework of the Palace. Falling masonry has already posed some serious health and safety concerns, as a piece the size of a football fell from a statue of an angel in 2018.
Updating mechanical and electrical systems
Outdated systems mean the Palace is not functioning effectively. By updating the mechanical and electrical system it will reduce the demand for emergency repairs which are expensive. If there was a major fault it could disrupt Parliament, which slows down important government decisions. All the fire, heating, drainage, mechanical and electrical systems will be replaced during this project. Steam pipes run alongside electrical cables, and the sewage ejector system dates back to 1888. Since2017 over 40,000 problems have been reported in the Palace.
The benefits of restoring the Palace
The restoration project will secure the future of the Palace as the home of the UK Parliament and preserve its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. There are numerous other benefits too, including:
Protecting the home of democracy
The Palace of Westminster is home to the UK’s Government, meaning it’s where vital work is done for the benefit and progression of society. It’s got to be a safe and accessible place for people to work and witness democracy.
Making Parliament more accessible
Access for disabled users is vital for any building. Parliament is open to the public for viewing as well as MPs, Lords, and other public figures, so it must be accessible to everyone.
Opening up to the public
The general public will have a better view of what happens in Parliament, providing a more open and trusting feeling than if government was shrouded in secrecy.
The new Palace will have reduced running costs by being more energy efficient, and have a significantly reduced carbon footprint. In the face of climate change, it is important that the place where government sits is part of a positive effort to reduce its impact.
Costly repairs and maintenance will be reduced significantly after restoration is complete. Plus, this project will create thousands of jobs and require specialist skills from construction industry workers. Trainees and apprentices are also expected to get the opportunity to work on this project with companies investing in these schemes.
What will happen to the House of Lords and the House of Commons?
Before the Palace works can begin, a vital first step is to restore The Northern Estate , a collection of 18th to 21st century buildings, most of which are listed and are already in use by MPs, their staff and House of Commons staff. This is where the House of Commons will sit and do business while the Palace is being restored.
Everyone who works in the Palace will move out by the mid-2020s so restoration can begin. Both Houses are expected to return in the early 2030s, or when the project is complete.
An overview of the plan for the entire project, including moving Parliament can be seen here.
Moving the Lords
The House of Lords is expected to move to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, opposite Westminster Abbey, which will have a chamber for meetings and offices. The QEII Conference Centre is already owned by the government and is not a listed building, plus, it is close by to other government departments and the relocated Commons.
Moving the Commons
This will be the first essential step of the restoration and renewal project. Once moved, all MPs will work within this single, secure site. The Northern Estate has a chamber in Richmond House similar to the layout of the existing Commons Chamber, but provides a greater level of accessibility for MPs and visitors, including wheelchair access to the public gallery.
Protecting the heritage collection
The Palace of Westminster houses a unique collection of over 25,000 works of art, furniture, archive, and library collections. This includes around 11,000 items of furniture, clocks, and ceramics and over 9,000 objects of art. Many unique objects in the collection, such as the Monarch’s Throne in the Lords Chamber and furniture designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who was asked to furnish the bombed areas of the House of Commons after the Second World War. Augustus Pugin, who designed the original interior of the building, gifted many items such as ceramics and silverware.
The Restoration and Renewal Programme will organise the protection of these items. They will all be moved during the project to keep them safe, then returned afterwards unless they are on loan at museums or other galleries. Some will be trickier than others to protect, such as the collection of fabrics used throughout the building’s history, some of which are incredibly delicate.