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If Buckingham Palace were for sale, the listing might read: “Multifamily residential property with 775 rooms. Curb appeal galore. Enviable central London location. Close to shopping and museums. Largest garden in the city! Plus, income potential with long-term tenants – seriously, the same family members have been living there since 1837! Needs work. Asking $5 billion.”
Needs work, to say the least. The place sounds like just another teardown.
“As the Palace’s electrical cabling, plumbing and heating have not been updated since the 1950s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the building’s infrastructure is now in urgent need of an overhaul to avoid the very real danger of catastrophic failure leading to fire or flood, and incalculable damage to the building and priceless works of art in the Royal Collection,” states the Buckingham Palace Reservicing Programme Summary Report, which came out in 2016.
While gilded surfaces of the palace gleam as always, the utilities hidden behind walls and under the floors, are an outdated, dangerous nightmare. In the last few years, experts have been poring over the building's innards to come up with a rennovation plan.
Not carrying out these works would come with significant risks, including these taken word for word from the report:
• Fire: A significant proportion of the wiring within the Palace is in a high-risk category and needs immediate attention to reduce the very real risk of fire and failure. Some of the electrical (wired) systems are over 60 years old.
• Declining resilience and operational failure: The majority of the Mechanical & Electrical (M&E) services and systems are over 40 years old (some are over 60 years old) and are degrading, thereby creating a number of significant risks for the Palace. Total failure is an ever-increasing risk.
• Damage to building fabric: The Palace’s aboveground drainage system consists of a mixture of lead and cast-iron pipework. Failures due to sagging have been identified in the lead drainage pipework and joints. The potential for damage to the building fabric is high, particularly in areas where the lead pipework is buried in walls and floors.
As a result, Buckingham Palace is in the midst of a 10-year $485 million program that began in earnest two years ago to overhaul most of the building’s electrical and mechanical systems, including 100 miles of wiring, 6,500 electrical outlets, 5,000 light fixtures, 20 miles of heating pipe, 10 miles of plumbing pipe, 2,500 radiators, 500 toilets, sinks and showers.
Like many other homeowners, Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t know what’s going on with the radiators in her drawing room or the boiler(s) in her basement.
According to the report, the 30-year-old boilers at the palace had some of their key parts replaced 15 years ago, but are now three years beyond their extended design life and in need of replacement.
“The Palace’s boilers are beyond their maximum useful life, and spare parts for them are difficult to source,” states the report. “This has created the risk that the system will not work in full or in part, on an increasingly regular basis. This will compromise the ability to provide acceptable living conditions, maintain the desired temperatures to care for the Royal Collection's furniture and works of art within the Palace, and to provide compliant office-working conditions for employees of the Royal Household.”
To provide reliable service, the report recommended that all of the boilers need to be replaced.
“Modern boilers are much more efficient and would consume less gas, thereby reducing running costs,” according to the report. “The chimney, through which the boiler gases rise, has significant deterioration in the brickwork, caused by sulphur from the waste gases,” the report adds. “Lining the chimney is therefore necessary to prevent further deterioration.”
In addition, the heating pipe was installed more than 60 years ago. Accordingly, the report says a number of valves are in poor condition and cannot be fully operated, which presents a “significant risk of water damage should the wet systems need to be isolated in an emergency.”
Due to the lack of valves and limited controls, the heating system is “inflexible, inefficient and unresponsive.” In practical terms, the report says this means that some unoccupied rooms have to be continually heated, thereby wasting energy.
Rooms are heated by a combination of ageing radiators and convectors, many of which are inefficient and too small for the size of each room.
“In some of the most significant rooms, the radiators are located in the lower section of the window shutter boxes in an attempt to conceal them from view,” the report says. “This compromise solution is inefficient and also prevents the shutters from being operated.”
Historic renovations are expensive. Not surprisingly, Buckingham Palace is a Grade I-listed property – the highest heritage grade in the UK – so contractors can’t just go down to Home Depot to pick up supplies. Everything has to be approved and vetted. And it’s not like they can strip the rooms back to studs.
More details in the report show how difficult the work will be.
The replacement of the plumbing and heating piping, for example, will require lifting the floors and “will be very disruptive to the occupants.” The report notes that the best option is to retain this pipework until it is necessary to replace the wiring, and to then install both the cabling and pipework at the same time to limit disruption.
“As the replacement of cabling needs to be started within ten and completed within fifteen years,” the report says, “the replacement of the heat distribution pipework would need to be aligned with it.”
The plan calls for all the radiators within the palace to be reviewed for size, condition, suitability and performance as part of the design process.
“Most are old and ideally would be replaced at the same time as the pipework,” the report says. “Replacing the radiators would also allow the temperature of rooms to be controlled individually, which is not possible at the moment, and for temperatures to be adjusted in each room by its occupants.”
Controlling all of the palace's electrical and mechanical systems is a building management system that is 20 years old.
“The current installation is slow and subject to frequent failure,” the report says. “There is also a lack of consistency within the BMS software that makes the management of the system difficult. There are a number of electricity, gas and water meters installed within the Palace and, although many of them are connected to the BMS, the majority are no longer compatible with modern requirements. This makes the monitoring, recording, reporting and management of energy utilities difficult.”
There is limited temperature control within zones, areas or rooms of the palace, which makes the systems unresponsive to user demands and costly to run.
“The non-availability of control to the heating system is inappropriate for a building of this size,” the report adds. “Consequently, it is difficult to control the heating levels within the Palace, resulting in energy being wasted in heating unoccupied areas. It is estimated that a 15 percent reduction in energy consumption could be achieved if a modern control system was installed.”
After some six decades of neglect for essential building services, the palace is expected to be fit for service until 2067 upon completion of the renovations.