Oscar Faber
Post-war, and rebuilding the House of Commons
The post-war years were an industrious and lucrative period for both the company and Oscar Faber himself. As the firm's work picked up again, the need for heating the huge spaces within cathedrals became apparent. Rob Kell and Faber had done work to renew the heating arrangements at St Albans Cathedral (1937), and in 1945 devised a new heating system at Canterbury Cathedral. Their joint expertise on heating large buildings triumphed here as it had done during the work on the Bank of England.
Immediately after the War, Faber was appointed consultant for the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and building services work necessary for the rebuilding of the House of Commons (1948-50), which Winston Churchill insisted must be brought back to its original design. He was subsequently appointed structural engineer as well.
The House of Commons is completely enclosed within the Palace of Westminster (1837-38) and not visible from outside. It was destroyed in an air raid on 10-11th May 1941, though both Houses of Parliament had relocated to Church House Annexe in 1940 for safety. From June 1941 until October 1950, the Commons used the House of Lords' Debating Chamber and the Lords used the Robing Room. This necessitated the Speaker's Procession passing through the Central Lobby, a tradition that remains today.
The House of Commons was constructed on a 1.5m thick raft foundation of friable 19th century lime concrete, below which is 4.3m of mostly waterlogged sand and gravel underlain by blue clay. Faber was keen to preserve the integrity of this raft and limited the pressure exerted on it to less than 66 tonnes per square metre. Except for the lift and sump pits, it was not punctured and the reinforced concrete bases for the steel columns were cast into recesses scooped out of the top half of the raft.
The size of the new building was constrained by the space available. It is essentially a steel frame clad internally with timber and externally with stone to echo the original building, designed by Sir Charles Barry. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect for the new work, said of his design "though still Gothic in style, the effect will be entirely different from what existed before".
He and Faber managed to squeeze two floors of accommodation (lounge, offices and conference rooms) and a mezzanine (for the ventilation plant) below the floor of the House — in an 8m deep space that had been filled previously with heating equipment. Two floors of accommodation (division lobbies and members' waiting rooms) were built around the Chamber itself, which is 14m high, and a further floor of offices was constructed over the Chamber. The total seating capacity of the House was increased from 802 to 939.
The Palace of Westminster was one of the first series of buildings where the provision of services influenced the design. However, its heating and ventilation systems were never really satisfactory despite repeated refurbishments and additions over the years. Faber was determined that the new House of Commons would have an effective system — avoiding the previous problems of "cold feet and hot heads".
The new air conditioning system was designed to keep the air in the Commons at a temperature of about 20 deg C and relative humidity of 50-60%, despite outside temperatures ranging from around 4 deg C in winter and 30 deg C (or more) in summer. To do this eight separate ventilation plants serving different areas of the building were installed in the mezzanine below the Chamber, providing almost nine air changes per hour. Direct heating was not required in the Chamber — air conditioning was more important — but other areas were heated by either panel heating (similar to the Bank of England) or radiators and convectors.
Following the usual progression of firms at the time, Faber decided that to secure his practice's professional future he would take five of his senior staff members into partnership. These were his son John Faber, Jim Vaughan, Rob Kell, K. Montgomery-Smith and Bob Glover — though Faber himself remained the major partner, receiving 50.5% of the profits. The Partnership Deed was signed on 19th March 1948 and Oscar Faber & Partners was on its way.
The first job under the new partnership was the civil engineering for Shoreham Cement Works (1948), and signalled something of a return to concrete for Faber. The partnership also heralded better business prospects, with various London jobs (Lloyds, Barclays, Royal College of Surgeons, Imperial Cancer Research, English Electric and the Gaiety Theatre).
In his 1949 paper The Construction of the New House of Commons, Faber paid tribute to the help he had received on the structural design from Vaughan and John Faber, and from Kell and (Dick) J.R. Harrison on the air conditioning. The House of Commons first sat in its new building on 26th October 1950. In 1951, Faber was awarded a CBE for his work on the project.
All items by Oscar Faber  •  All items by Oscar Faber & Partners
Everything built ... 1886 - 1956
Portrait  courtesy AECOM

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Oscar Faber
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