UK steadies itself for overhaul of crumbling Houses of Parliament

In the UK, Parliament is breaking down. Literally. The iconic Palace of Westminster, known as ‘Mother of Parliaments’, will be 145 years old in 2015.

But despite constant and heavy use – by parliamentarians, civil servants and many thousands of visitors – it hasn’t had the renovations it needed and now its condition is so bad that it is effectively an insurance write-off.

Last year a trio of big-name design, engineering and project management firms – Deloitte, Aecom and HOK – were engaged to probe how it could be sorted out, and given just over £2m to do it.

One scenario sees politicians having to find somewhere else to run the country for a time.

This week the trio got nearly £6m to do yet more studies.

It’s such a major job that actual work isn’t expected to start until 2020 at the earliest.

Extensive decay

Designed by the architect Sir Charles Barry, the current Palace of Westminster, comprising both houses of the UK Parliament, replaced a much older complex of buildings that was destroyed by fire in 1834.

After more than 30 years of construction, latterly overseen by Charles’s architect son, Edward, the new Palace was largely finished by 1870.

Since then many parts have never been renovated, and the heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated – some of the pipes are more than 100 years old.

The roofs are leaking, the floors are cracking, the gutters are corroded, and the cumulative effects of pollution and lack of maintenance are causing extensive decay to stonework.

Unless decisive action is taken, extensive damage will be irreparable.

How much will it cost? Sources told the BBC this week that the price of restoration would be more than £3bn ($4.7bn), but Richard Ware, the man in charge of the Palace Restoration and Renewal project, said: "The honest figure is that we don’t know."

A pre-feasibility study in October 2012 advised that the costs of fixing these problems could be high enough to make the building an insurance write-off. "If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild," said the report.

Three options

In December last year officials gave the job of assessing the options for a comprehensive renewal programme to a team of three firms: property consultant Deloitte Real Estate, designer and engineer Aecom, and architect and heritage specialist HOK.

They were tasked with considering three broad approaches, graded in severity:

You won’t know we’re there: Continuing repairs and replacement of the fabric and systems of the Palace over an indefinite period of time.

Firm hand: A rolling programme of more substantial repairs and replacement over a long period, but still working around continued use of the Palace.

Shock & awe: Scheduling the works over a more concentrated period, with parliamentary activities moved elsewhere to allow unrestricted access to the Palace for the delivery of the works.

They were given £2.02m to compile their report, which is due in June or July 2015, with a decision on the preferred way forward expected by spring 2016.

This week, however, the consortium was given a further £5.8m for more studies, which officials say needed "to support the more detailed planning and design process that must follow that decision".

Those further studies include a re-assessment of the risk of plant failure and security and visitor management.

In a written statement, the House of Commons Commission Spokesman, John Thurso MP and Lord Sewel, Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords, said the extra studies are needed to "keep the programme on track" once work begins in 2020 or 2021 – whatever scenario is chosen in the end.

"Other major public projects consistently demonstrate that effort put into early planning is rewarded later with better assurance around delivery," John Hicks, director and head of government and public sector at Aecom, stated.

It shows how big the job is, and how very badly it needs to go right.

Photograph: It looks nice by candlelight, but the 145-year-old Palace of Westminster is in dire need of renovation (Mark Williamson/Wikimedia Commons)

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  1. Are we surprised – No! If Politicians can’t even keep their own House in order, what hope have we for the country – God help us all!

  2. How can it take 6 years to design & procure ? How can it take 6 years to implement ? Somebody is trying to make a career out of this. What is the point of putting modern facilities into a skeleton that has almost crumbled away and which will, notwithstanding the imminently proposed facade repairs, continue crumbling as soon as the contractors have walked away. Notwithstanding it’s iconic image, the Palace of Westminster is a Gothic Revival mess. We should knock it down and replace it with a modern fit for purpose building with a facade designed to last 500 years. By all means continue with the current image on sauce bottles thereafter.

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