Dr. Schoenefeldt publishes new article on historic ventilation of the Houses of Parliament


A new peer-reviewed journal article on the Houses of Parliament’s Victorian ventilation system has just been published in Architectural History, written by Dr. Henrik Schoenefeldt. The article is entitled ‘The Temporary Houses of Parliament  and David Boswell Reid’s architecture of experimentation’ and presents an in-depth exploration of the stack-driven  ventilation system that the  Scottish physician and chemistry professor David Boswell Reid had adopted and tested inside the Temporary Houses of Parliament. The  original environmental systems were reconstructed, using developmental sketches, technical reports and oral accounts,  in a series of drawings.


Page from article showing axonometric projection of the House of Commons chamber produced by the author.
Page from article showing axonometric projection of the House of Commons chamber produced by the author.

The Temporary Houses, erected in Westminster after the fire as a preliminary home for the British Parliament, were occupied for several years up until the completion of the New Houses of Parliament. This provided Reid  with the unique opportunity to test and optimise a stack ventilation strategy not only over an extended period of time but also under real life conditions. The two debating chambers were used to test and optimise the ventilation system and its day-to-day operation from a physiological, environmental and technical perspective. It also explores in detail the scientific working methods that Reid had originally developed in Edinburgh and how they were applied to the study of the ventilation in the Temporary House of Commons (1835) and in the Temporary House of Lords (1839).

The article also explore the new insights that Reid and his team of attendants had gained through experiments and by monitoring the system over several years. Archival evidence also permitted the author to undertake a detailed analysis of the performance of the system. This  involved a detailed study of the original measurements recorded in the attendants’ log-books, observational studies, user-surveys and reports on various technical experiments  undertaken inside the House of Commons over fifteen year. This analysis showed, for instance, that the day-to-day operation of the system was challenging as the system had to be very responsive to any changes in the weather conditions, atmospheric pollution levels or sudden and extreme fluctuations in the number of MPs inside the chamber. Moreover, it was operated  manually by a team of attendants. To affectively manage the system, a sophisticated monitoring and control regime was developed, which involved, among others, the systematic monitoring of the indoor climate  and the collection and interpretation of user-feedback from MPs while the House was sittings. These aspects have not been studied by historians in any great depth before, but they are critical to fully understand the significance of the environmental experimentation for the  subsequent development of the ventilation in the actual Palace of Westminster.

This article is part of the author’s ongoing research project, investigating the development of the historic ventilation system of the Houses of Parliament from the mid- 1830s through to the 1940s.  Dr. Schoenefeldt is also acting as consultant to the Houses of Parliament, exploring how far the historic ventilation could be revitalised, at least in parts, as part of a sustainable environmental design strategy for the Palace.