The Houses of Parliament are collapsing — literally. Damage built up over almost two centuries of intensive use has left the Palace of Westminster in urgent need of structural repairs.
Business Insider was given an exclusive tour through the winding tunnels under the Palace where the repair works are already underway, and interviewed the people responsible for saving the world’s second-most photographed landmark.
It was a claustrophobic trip behind the scenes (and the walls) of British lawmaking, revealing both the incredible work of those who have had the job of maintaining the building over the years and the scale of the challenge that they now face.
Dr Richard Ware, programme director for the Restoration and Renewal Programme, and Mel Barlex, parliamentary director of estates and technical director for the programme, are leading the rescue effort and they gave us their prognosis of the future of this iconic building.
...and over the years leaking pipes, antiquated wiring and everyday wear and tear have taken a severe toll inside the Palace as well.
Dr. Richard Ware: 'Architecturally, the Palace of Westminster is a masterpiece. It comes from the relatively early Victorian period before they descended into the farce of Scottish castles and eclecticism. This was the serious Victorians thinking about the constitution and how they wanted to project the history of the nation.'
The Palace is the home of the British Parliament and it hosts around a million visitors each year. As Dr Ware puts it: 'There is very little downtime and the problem is how on earth you undertake fundamental renovations on the scale required under those circumstances'.
Beneath the grand exterior is a very different world -- a maze of narrow tunnels at times barely wide enough for workers to clamber through.
It is in these tunnels that the teams responsible for keeping the Palace of Westminster in working order spend their days (and frequently nights).
Although progress has been made, they are fighting a losing battle. A report in 2012 concluded: 'If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.'
The Palace was built out of Anston limestone from Yorkshire because it was cheap and easy to carve. Unfortunately it was also prone to erosion.
The 160-year-old roofs have never undergone major renovation or repair and are leaking, causing significant damage to the stonework and historic interiors of the building.
Of the 3,000 windows in the Palace, the vast majority do not close properly and provide no weather resistance. This has caused significant damage and decay of the surrounding stonework as well as heat loss from the Palace.
Mel Barlex: 'When things go wrong you can't shut the Palace down so you end up putting new cables and pipework in without removing the old ones. So you eventually shrink the amount of available space you have and make it more difficult to access the areas that you need to get to.'
The problems also impact the day-to-day running of parliament. Barlex: 'Within six months of my joining I had a member stuck in a lift as a vote was underway. The legislation was ultimately passed by seven votes. That brought home just how serious these issues are.'
'The worst problem we've had was a flood in 2010. A policeman walking along one of the corridors noticed some water coming in through the ceiling. A pipe had split pouring out 30,000 litres of water in 15 minutes, and it took us three weeks to fully recover.'
Workers also have to contend with the legacy of the last rebuilding effort. Barlex: 'There was an enforced rebuilding of half of the palace after the Second World War because the Commons chamber had been bombed out. One of the wonder materials of the 1940s and 1950s was asbestos so they liberally applied it all around the building -- not just as insulation but in light switches, toilet systems and as a sound suppressant'.
The work currently being done (at around £50 million a year) keeps the building operational, but much more fundamental work is required to halt the degradation. Dr Ware: 'The more things become antiquated the chances of a bigger crisis grow. It's already burned down once…'
Joseph Mallord William Turner captured the fire in 'The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons,' October 16, 1834.
The BIG problem, though, is the cost. A project that will cost well over £1 billion of taxpayers' money may prove a difficult sell to the public. 'Members of both houses effectively have a sovereign right so they can't be told what to do, they have to agree to it,' Barlex says.
However, the R&R team has its own tactics to win over hearts and minds. 'All the work that is now going on has been made very visible. The more obvious you can make it the more people suddenly take an interest in what needs to be done.' Nothing motivates quite like the sound of drilling outside a window.
By 2016 members will be asked to choose between the three options: Full Decant (moving out of the Palace completely), Area Decant (one House at a time) or Minor Decant. If they go for either of the first two, after 2020 Britain's laws could be voted on in a room like this:
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