Retracing the evolution of the Houses of Parliament’s historic ventilation system – 1835-1854

Research Colloquium Lecture – For architecture postgraduate students and academic staff

Speaker: Dr. Henrik Schoenefeldt

Up until the 1940s the Palace of Westminster was ventilated by a system of ventilation turrets and towers  that had been originally developed by teams of engineers, architects and scientists in the mid-nineteenth century. These stacks were designed to exploit the natural buoyancy of hot air to drive foul air out of the building. These utilised waste heat from fire places, gas lighting and people, but at times were assisted by coke fires or steam jets.

The talk will show the most recent findings of Henrik’s research into the Houses of  Parliament’s Victorian ventilation system. It focuses on the evolution of the design for the stack ventilation strategy  over the period between 1835, when the physician and chemist David Boswell Reid first proposed and subsequently tested his scheme for a stack driven ventilation system in a series of full-scale model debating chambers,  and the late 1850’s, when a final arrangement had been adopted. This remained in constant use up-until the 1920s. Past historical studies on the Palace of Westminster have focused largely on David Boswell Reid’s original plans for ventilating the Palace, but archival research conducted by the speaker over the past three years has revealed that these plans were never fully implemented.  Instead his original  scheme was abandoned in 1846, largely due to the high complexity of the design process. The project team struggled with establishing a workable system for managing the communication and workflow within a largely cross-disciplinary design team, involving engineers, scientists, and architects. This illuminated the difficulties with reconciling the specific working methods of architects and scientists in 19th century architecture. In 1847 a  new master plan was implemented by Charles Barry, Alfred Meeson and Michael Faraday, which had a significant influence on architectural character of the Palace.  The implemented system was modified again in 1854 under the direction of the engineer Goldsworthy Gurney.

Reid’s proposal, let alone the ventilation system schemes implemented in 1846 and 1854 has not been studied in any great depth before, let alone the role of scientific experiments, environmental monitoring and observation studies in its development. Extensive archival evidence of the historic design has survived, which included technical reports, historic architectural drawings, technical details, and the original project correspondence. The scientific and technical literature of the mid-nineteenth also includes numerous illustrations and detailed written commentaries on the historic systems and the underlying environmental design objectives. This archival material is used to reconstruct (a) Reid’s original ventilation scheme (1840-46), (b) the new scheme implemented after 1846 and (c) the remodelling of the ventilation arrangements in the mid-1850s. This research has illustrated, among others, how the Victorian explored ways of ventilating large public buildings with minimal mechanical aids and the technical and managerial challenges it posed.

The research project:

This talks is based on a larger research project on the Houses of Parliament’s Victorian ventilation system that Henrik has been conducting at the University of Kent since autumn 2011. The primary aim of the project is to develop a critical understanding of the historic system, first by retracing the design development, second by reconstructing its design and third by analysing its actual performance. The latter is based largely on historic measurements recorded as part of the routine monitoring and control procedures, eyewitness reports as well as the numerous observational studies and scientific experiments  based   historic system.  Following the recommendation of the House of Commons Commission Henrik has been acting  been acting as consultant on the Palace Restoration Programme. Henrik has submitted three reports and has delivered several talks at Westminster on the historic ventilation system. The current focus of this collaboration is on ventilation of the House of Lords debating chamber and the River Front. Henrik’s most recent publication on this subject is:  Schoenefeldt, Henrik, ‘The Palace of Westminster and Reid’s architecture of experimentation’, Architectural History, 57- 2014, pp. 173-213.