(Re-)Assembling past environmental principles

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This week was the start of a large research project that I will be leading over the next three years. It is entitled ‘Between Heritage and Sustainable – Restoring the Palace of Westminster’s nineteenth-century ventilation system,’ and funded through a grant from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project’s objective is to regain a critical understanding of the sophisticated  systems that were introduced in the mid-nineteenth century to provide parliament with fresh air and an early form of ‘air-conditioning’. Combining archival research, building surveys. technical analysis and design-led research, the project will reconstruct the historic arrangements, re-examine their performance and to explore possible scenarios for re-utilizing them today.

This project is the culmination of earlier research that I have undertaken since completing my PhD at the University of Cambridge five years ago. This work focused on the early stages, when the  ventilation was under the direction of the Scottish physician David Boswell Reid (1805-63), but it was also used to demonstrate how combining technical and historical perspectives in the interpretation of archival material can yield a deeper understanding of past environmental principles. In addition to its value as scholarly research in the field of architectural history,  it has yielded new knowledge relevant to engineering and conservation practice.  Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme, having recognized the importance of my research to the forthcoming restoration, has become the main partner. This research will feed into the programme, exploring ways in which parts of the historic principles could be re-utlized.

In many ways the research has close resemblance to a Puzzle, the time consuming task of forming a picture by connecting small, initially unrecognizable, pieces. In this project, however,  the process of re-assembling goes well beyond the reconstruction of the external form.  It is equally  concerned with recovering a large body of institutional knowledge about its performance and management that was accumulated over the course of ninety years. This includes the day-to-day experience gained by the staff operating the systems as well as the insights that were gained through various scientific studies used to empirically evaluate and gradually refine the systems.

This process of continual learning terminated in the 1950s, when the historic arrangements, perceived as outmoded and antiquated,  were finally abandoned and replaced with supposedly more ‘advanced’ mechanical ventilation and air conditioning technology.  Much of this knowledge, however, has been preserved through physical records, including transcripts of interviews, reports, diaries and letters. These allow us to recover this knowledge and to re-examine how the system behaved under a different, often challenging, environmental conditions.

 

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