Behind the scenes: engineering careers at the Houses of Parliament
Engineers at the Parliamentary Design Authority take on a wide range of responsibilities, from maintaining steam engines fitted in the Palace of Westminster in 1850 to working on the major Restoration and Renewal of the Palace project. There are now new opportunities available to join them.
As lead electrical engineer of the House of Commons’ Parliamentary Design Authority (PDA), Ugbana Oyet is responsible for writing engineering briefs and standards that reflect the particular challenges faced when working on the Parliamentary Estate. He and his team of engineers are also in charge of maintaining all construction and engineering systems and infrastructure, from heating and cooling through to electrics and communication, providing technical support for over 100 projects a year.
Their day-to-day work is quite unique, as Oyet highlights.
“We spend a lot of time on resilience for specialist systems such as the division bells, which are rung around Parliament to notify MPs when there is a vote in either House. Other systems we work on include the annunciators; small televisions which outline the current business in each House.
“We’re currently working with photovoltaics, variable speed drives and programmable logic controllers in new installations, but we also work with equipment installed in the 1850s,” he continues. “We have one of the few buildings that still uses steam for space heating. A working steam engine was originally used to propel air through the basement plenum as part of the ventilation system for the Commons Chamber. Now steam is converted to low temperature hot water for heating.
“A second steam engine – a Marshall eight horsepower design – provided compressed air for sewage drainage in the 1890s when it cost around £500. The steam engine was introduced to replace the four original Atkinson four-horsepower differential gas engines, and although electricity is now used, it is still available as a back-up in emergencies for the sewage system.”
Working in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Grade 1 listed buildings has its challenges, but also comes with some special benefits and a chance to garner insider knowledge. For example, Oyet tells me it’s not a widely known fact that Michael Faraday contributed to the master plan for the design of the lighting and ventilation system for Parliament in 1847.
“This scheme was later modified by Goldsworthy Gurney in 1854,” he notes. “He had a rather unconventional way of testing the stack ventilation system using gunpowder ignitions.”
Opportunities also arise for engineers to get involved in other aspects of Parliament, such as joining the procession to search the basement for gunpowder during state opening of Parliament, a tradition that marks Guy Fawkes’ failed gunpowder plot of 1605.
“There are opportunities to take on additional duties that are integral to the work of Parliament,” adds Oyet. “I have a colleague who took up the opportunity to act as an associate serjeant at arms and support MPs in the House of Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s questions. The downside if you are a man with hairy legs is you do have to wear the traditional uniform, which includes tights!”
But even the everyday work is something special, with recent projects including the refurbishment of the Elizabeth Tower – home to the famous bell Big Ben, refurbishing the 900-year-old Westminster Hall, and repairing the Palace of Westminster’s cast iron roofs where they’re looking to introduce solar photovoltaics.
The scale of Oyet’s latest challenge, the Restoration and Renewal project, is creating new jobs in the PDA as engineers of all types will be needed from an early stage.
Engineers will be working on design and installation schemes that look at everything from air conditioning, heating and mechanical cooling of historic areas and lift, water and sewage reconfiguration through to introducing control, smart building and energy engineering to achieve national emissions targets and updating IT and security solutions.
“No comparable project has the same level of complexity of services, historic context and working constraints, and engineers will be delivering solutions to building services on a scale that is possibly unmatched in any other Grade I Listed Building restoration programme in the UK or any building within a World Heritage site,” Oyet states.
The PDA’s team consists of engineers from mechanical, communications, control and electrical disciplines, plus BIM specialists, architects and project managers etc. Currently recruiting to support the new project, the PDA also recruits a new mechanical and electrical apprentice every two years, takes on interns and offers a graduate scheme.
“There is a huge range of roles available across the House, with the Restoration and Renewal programme creating even more new and exciting roles,” says Oyet. “We look for varying skills depending on the job in question. Some need a specific qualification and some are really about bringing knowledge and skills to the role.
“For example every year we have sandwich students joining the Engineers Control Team of the Strategic Estates (formerly Parliamentary Estates Directorate – PED). They are studying towards a building, construction, technical or project management degree. The House also runs a graduate development programme and will be broadening its apprenticeship scheme soon.”