Refurbishing the Palace of Westminster – Politics under Fire

The Palace of Westminster is the hub of the UK’s political power. The level of importance  that this building holds means that it is protected by strict security protocols, and even has its own branch of the Metropolitan Police’s Specialist Operations Directorate.

But what about the safety of this historic building itself?

Like many historic buildings which find themselves in constant use, the Houses of Parliament is currently in a balancing act between maintaining its original features which hold great value, and ensuring adequate levels of safety for its occupants.


Recently this last requirement has been questioned in an independent report into the Houses of Parliament which was commissioned last year. It was found that vital repair work and renovation work are required on this historic building for it to remain fit for purpose.

The main concerns in this report were the crumbling stonework as well as leaking roofs. But there was an even greater concern for this historic building and its users that came out of the independent report, when it was determined that there were inadequate fire safety measures.

Given that the building itself, a World Heritage site, was rebuilt following a fire in the mid-1800s it might be easy to assume that lightning won’t strike twice. However, Dr Richard Ware, who is the Director of Parliament’s Renewal and Restoration Programme, recognised the issue of fire safety within the building and has stated:

“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.”

An option for the Houses of Parliament now is to retrofit fire safety systems. Retrofitting fire safety systems to any older property or building can require compromises to avoid changing its character particularly with such a prestigious building.

It is thought that the amount of work required on the Houses of Parliament to bring its fire safety strategies to a satisfactory level is expected to cost as much as £7.1 billion. The time frame for these improvements to be implemented is expected to be up to 32 years if MPs choose to continue working in the Houses of Parliament whilst this work is carried out, but even then they will still need to relocate to a temporary chamber for two to four years.

Even the more conservative estimates which propose MPs relocate to temporary accommodation for up to 6 years sees the costs for implementing the necessary fire safety systems at £3.5 billion.

Whichever approach is taken by the Houses of Parliament to improve its fire safety systems and strategies, it is not thought that this work will begin until 2020 at the earliest.

Of course, the Houses of Parliament and the project to improve its fire safety systems is very much the exception rather than the rule. Many renovation projects can be managed to suit a range of budgets with a process which is far easier as there are up to 650 representatives to relocate.

With any refurbishment project, regardless of its history and age, it may be necessary to make a new application to Building Control to ensure that the building’s fire safety strategy meet the requirements. This is particularly important when there are large scale alterations being made, for example if occupancy levels are changed or if escape routes need to be revised.

When considering fire strategies in your building it is beneficial to take an engineered approach. Whilst the more traditional code compliant method to fire strategies can allow for faster approval by Building Control, it does limit design freedom.

Fortunately, if the suggested fire strategy is seen as safe to meet the Approved Document B (ADB) of the Building Regulations, then it is a perfectly acceptable to be used. With this design approach there are a number of advantages which include the creation of larger spaces or compartments, increased occupancy levels and extended travel distances. All providing additional saleable/useable space within an existing building layout.

Bringing FDS Consult’s experienced fire engineers on board during any early planning stages of your refurbishment projects can see your project benefit from these advantages.

To find out more about FDS’s Consult’s range of fire services, contact us today.

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