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House of Commons rebuilding
Palace of Westminster, Parliament Square, London, UK
House of Commons rebuilding
associated engineer
Oscar Faber
date  1948 - 1950
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ301795
ICE reference number  HEW 2323
photo  circa 1940s, courtesy AECOM
The present Palace of Westminster — seat of the UK Parliament — was designed by Sir Charles Barry and completed in 1838. In May 1941, during a single night of World War II bombing raids, the building was hit twelve times. Fire fighters managed to save the historic hammer beam roof of the oldest part of the complex, Westminster Hall, but the adjacent House of Commons was completely destroyed.
After the war, the House of Commons was rebuilt under the direction of architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (who also designed the famous red telephone box). He devised a somewhat simplified version of the old Chamber's decorative elements but maintained its crowded atmosphere so condusive to adversarial politics and followed the spirit of the original.
The Palace of Westminster is built in a style called Gothic Revival. It contains two Parliamentary chambers: the Commons and the House of Lords. It also has three towers, including the Clock Tower, home to the famous bell Big Ben. The chambers are surrounded by offices and anciliary rooms, and their forms are not evident from the exterior. Original interiors are by Augustus Pugin.
For the Commons rebuilding, the engineering firm Oscar Faber was appointed first to handle the building services design, and then as structural engineer — the latter at the direction of Gilbert Scott. Faber himself worked on the structural strategy and the heating and ventilation, and his partner Stanley Vaughan was responsible for the steelwork and construction.
In 1944, Oscar Faber (1886-1956) had been elected President of the Institute of Heating & Ventilation, a position he held for two years. He already had an established reputation for working on important public buildings, such as new work done at the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street.
The Palace of Westminster lies on the north bank of the River Thames, right at the water's edge. So, Barry had faced the problems of waterside construction, including soft ground. He used a 2.8 hectare concrete slab as a foundation. It's generally 1.5m deep and even deeper under the towers. For the new work, the engineers avoided punching through this raft foundation. Instead, pockets of concrete were removed to only partial thickness. Into these were cast in situ new square concrete bases to support new steel columns.
The bases are keyed into the slab by their shape — inverted truncated pyramids. They sit below the level of the slab, which enables the base plates and column connections to be concealed.
Within the House, the debating chamber's perimeter steel frame is set on a near-square grid in both directions. The space is spanned by plated trusses matching the perimeter grid centres. Raked beams support the upper level galleries. The elaborate wall and ceiling linings to the frame replicate the original timber detailing by Pugin. The frame steps back along its length and additional height above the Chamber has been allowed for a two-tier roof over the whole rebuilt House of Commons.
Faber was perhaps primarily employed for his expertise in heating and ventilation. He also had by this time another expert, John Robert Kell, working with him. Faber was a pioneer in his field, responding effectively to exacting design challenges.
In this case, the challenge was how to heat and cool the large Chamber appropriately in response to the range of temperatures in London — from below zero to mid 30 deg C. An ambient temperature of around 21 deg C was the aim. This might not seem much of a challenge, given all the buildings in London, but in the House, occupancy can change at a moment's notice. One minute the chamber is empty, the next it is filled by more than 1,000 people in heated debate, or rapidly leaving and returning to the Chamber as part of the voting procedure.
As the demand on heating/cooling measures can change quickly, from high heating load to high cooling load, Faber decided to cross-ventilate as much as possible. He avoided what he called the "cold feet effect" by not bringing air-conditioned air in at floor level in the usual way. Instead, a dual duct system mixes warmed and cooled air before it reaches the Chamber.
This system was manually operated from the basement plant room. Faber equipped the plant room with a periscope so that occupancy of the Chamber could be checked at any given moment and staff could pre-empt any sudden demand on heating or cooling.
The plant room housed two 175 kW compressors, which used freon as their refrigeration medium for the cooling of 7,000 gallons of brine stored at -4 deg C. This allowed for a continuous cooling load of four to five hours at any one time. The cooled air was delivered by eight separate cooling plants feeding ductwork throughout the building. Two of the plants served the floor level of the Chamber, and one the gallery level.
No direct heating supply for the Chamber was installed. Instead, heat was 'borrowed' from the offices and corridors that surround it.
An elaborate network of branched ductwork sent the conditioned air to numerous outlets set into the ornate detail of the Chamber’s gallery structure, and at the upper level of the spring point of the replica roof trusses. Extract ducts were positioned at regular centres in the apex of the roof lining of the Chamber.
Architect (1948-50): Sir Giles Gilbert Scott
Supervising engineer (heating and ventilation): J.R. Harrison
Contractor: Mowlem & Co Ltd
Foundations: Trollope & Colls Ltd
Steelwork: Redpath Brown Ltd
Air-conditioning and heating: Benham & Son Ltd
Electrical installations: Troughton & Young Ltd
Lifts: J & E Hall Ltd
Research: ND
"Oscar Faber, his work, his firm, & afterwards" by John Faber, Quiller Press, London 1989
"The Construction of the House of Commons" by Oscar Faber, in Structural Engineer, Journal of the Institution of Structural Engineers, May 1949

House of Commons rebuilding