29 May 2020
The Palace of Westminster has been the permanent seat of British Government since the 16th Century, but the building’s origins go back to at least the 11th Century. The Old Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834. The New Palace was built after 1840. Chancellors Court & State Officers Court is significant within the Palace and it was built between 1840 and 1857.
With DBR Ltd (London) as masonry and conservation contractor and Donald Insall Associates as architect, lead consultant and Principal Designer, this project marks a revival of UK Parliament’s Courtyards Conservation works. The brief included the cleaning and repair of masonry, leaded coloured glass, lead and cast iron rainwater goods and lanterns, and bronze windows. This included identifying cleaning and repair methods and the specification of materials that were more appropriate to the building and would inform similar works to subsequent courtyards. Priority was given to achieving robust repairs whilst conserving significant stonework, including carved ornament.
At the outset of this project, Chancellors Court had 150 years of accumulated atmospheric pollution, soiling, sulphation crusts and masonry decay. Masonry was to be cleaned, both to enhance its lifespan and improve its appearance; then robustly repaired (particularly where drip courses and other water-shedding blocks are concerned) in order to conserve the fabric and clarity of design, and make the building watertight.
In more detail:
The project was informed by careful trials, design and specification throughout, driven by a need to deliver high-quality workmanship to this Gothic Revival Grade I Listed Building and World Heritage Site. This included the identification of suitable stone types that were sustainably and ethically sourced as well as being geologically appropriate. This was alongside employing methods of cleaning and conserving the existing stone with minimal harmful chemicals, producing controllable waste with minimal risk.
The work was inspected by Donald Insall Associates on a weekly basis. In addition to the architect’s production of detailed masonry cleaning and repair drawings, details and schedules generally, detailed working drawings were prepared for the installation and fitting of stone throughout the project. This was necessary to illustrate the innovation and methodology required.
All the while, the global significance of the design of the Palace of Westminster was considered paramount; the intelligent integration of repairs and repair methods with the existing fabric of the surrounding building fabric was critical, as was the maintenance of the building aesthetic.
Training and Apprentices
The project welcomed apprentices from the Building Crafts College who have worked alongside DBR stonemasons to gain their qualifications in NVQ level 3 Advanced Stonemasonry. The project provided the opportunity to set out and work gothic revival masonry from sawn six sides block on-site in the specially constructed banker shop. These stonemasons have now moved on with DBR to the external masonry repair of Big Ben.
A particular challenge to this project was the requirement to undertake a large and complex project without disruption to the business of Parliament as noise and vibrations were easily heard, or in some cases amplified, within the Chamber. This required complex programming and stakeholder liaison with the House of Lords and its representatives, with ‘quiet times’ imposed while the House was sitting, sometimes at very short notice. The solution involved a combination of early-morning starts on-site, weekend working, and maximising the efficiency of loud works during Parliamentary recesses, and a consistent and concerted effort to maintain enough quiet labour so that quiet times could be effectively utilised. The on-site Banker Shop was an essential part of the project where stonework could be templated and worked from block to the required profiles within an acoustically contained dust extracted enclosure on the scaffolding.
Another particular challenge was the client’s requirement to eliminate any activities generating vibrations to the east wall, that would potentially cause damage to Maclise’s important wall painting ’The Death of Nelson’. The risk was that vibrations would carry through the structure and exacerbate defects and cracks caused by previous structural movement. The project team worked closely with the Palace’s Curators of Artworks, who carried out detailed recording of the paintings. Vibration monitoring was maintained during the works and the contractor reactively modified their methods of working in real-time. This principally affected the cutting of stone and so required the use of hand and low torque tools. The measures were a success, and the Curators examination of the artwork found no new damage.
Photo credits: Donald Insall Associates
About the Conservation & Regeneration Award:
The conservation or rehabilitation of old or historic buildings and sites is often an important part of neighbourhood revitalisation, providing a physical and psychological focus for the community and creating jobs and investment opportunities. Construction work that involves the conservation and regeneration of historic buildings requires great care and specialist skills and techniques.