Politics Under Fire – Refurbishing the Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster: The UK’s hub of political power, protected by strict security protocols and even its own branch of the Metropolitan Police’s Specialist Operations Directorate. But what about the safety of the building itself?

Like any historic property, the Houses of Parliament are involved in a fine balancing act between maintaining its original features and providing adequate levels of safety in order to remain operational.

Unfortunately, this last requirement has recently been called into question, with an independent report commissioned last year finding that vital repair and renovation works are required if the building is to be fit for purpose.

Chief amongst these concerns were its crumbling stonework, leaking roofs and, perhaps most worrying of all, inadequate fire safety measures.

Given that the World Heritage site was rebuilt following a fire in the mid-1800s, it might be easy to think that lightning won’t strike twice, but even Dr Richard Ware, Director of Parliament’s Renewal and Restoration Programme recognised the issue, stating:

“We don’t have the kind of fire containment – ‘compartmentalisation’ – that is normally recommended for historic buildings.

“What that means is that if a fire ever took hold, we would get everybody out, but we couldn’t necessarily be sure of saving the building.”

Retrofitting fire safety systems to any older property can require compromises to be made to avoid changing its character, and this is particularly complex when dealing with such a prestigious building.

Due to the amount of work that needs to be carried out, the repair costs have been estimated to be as high as £7.1 billion and works are estimate to take up to 32 years – if MPs stay in place while this is carried out, although they will still need to relocate to a temporary chamber for between two and four years.

Even the most conservative estimate, which suggests a scenario in which MPs relocate to temporary accommodation for up to 6 years, sees these costs at £3.5 billion. Regardless of the approach taken, work isn’t expected to begin until 2020.

Of course, this project is very much the exception rather than the rule, and many renovation project can be managed to suit a range of budgets, a process which is made even easier by not having to relocate as many as 650 representatives!

For any refurbishment project, regardless of its history, it might be necessary to make a new application to Building Control to make sure that the building’s fire safety strategy meets their requirements, particularly where large-scale alterations are made, for instance if occupancy levels are changes or escape routes need to be revisited.

When considering fire strategies, taking an engineered approach can offer a number of benefits. While the traditional, code compliant method can allow faster approval by Building Control, this severely limits design freedom.

Fortunately, provided that a suggested strategy is as safe as that outlined by Approved Document B (ADB) of the Building Regulations, it is perfectly acceptable. This brings with it a number of advantages, including the creation of larger spaces or compartments, increased occupancy levels and extended travel distances, providing additional saleable/usable space within an existing building.

By bringing FDS Consult UK’s experienced fire engineers on board during the early planning stages, any refurbishment project can experience these advantages. To find out more about FDS Consult UK’s services, contact us today.


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