The news that Buckingham Palace is to undergo a significant renovation has provoked a mixed reaction. Luke Czerpak of electrical contractors Eaton Electrical (www.eatononline.co.uk) looks at the intricacies involved with renovating a heritage property, to make it safe without losing its charm.
Restoration to Buckingham Palace is scheduled to commence later this year. However, the plans for the palace, which attracted over half a million visitors last year and has over 50 bedrooms for Royals and around 188 for staff, have provoked mixed reactions. Some are outraged by the estimated size of the bill (around £369 million); while others feel that the renovation of one of the UK’s most iconic buildings is long overdue.
I know first-hand that it is not unusual for an historical building to have outdated and sometimes hazardous wiring. The refurbishment plans to begin this year will be the largest undertaken on the property since the Second World War, so ageing cables, wiring and pipes will all be replaced amid fears of potential fires and water damage.
Do historical renovations have to be expensive?
The Buckingham Palace renovation project is likely to involve working with 5000 light fittings, 100 miles of electric cabling and 20 miles of heating pipework. However, the project can’t be faced with the attitude of simply removing the old and replacing it with the new. In fact, even replacing old electrical features and components and replacing them with something that is new but looks old would not be the best approach.
One solution is to retain original fittings where possible - and of course, where it is safe to do so. Many heritage properties contain light fittings designed for candles, oil or gas which may be suitable for conversion, or old fuseboard which may be capable of accommodating modern circuit breaker interiors. It’s a matter of looking around and seeing what can be safely and economically retained.
Of course, even when re-using original features, there will inevitably be a need for new wiring and in this case, the aim is to keep this as discreet as possible. One solution is to position sockets under hinged covers which can be the same colour as the background wall.Using small architrave light switches instead of plate type is another way of helping them to blend into the background. In addition, new technology such as ‘mains signalling’ reduces the need for cabling. In fact, the technology that we now have available can help minimise invasion. Just because a project involves an old building doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use new techniques.
Taking art and artefacts into consideration
Another challenge presented by buildings such as Buckingham Palace is the fact that they often house valuable artefacts and works of art. This means that light and heating may have to be set at specific levels to ensure the preservation of delicate historical objects.
We were recently involved in a project at the National Portrait Gallery. When it opened in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery was the first of its kind in the world and is now home to the largest collection of portraits world-wide. The project involved the installation of low energy LED lighting, high colour rendering, dimming and control systems, which improved the quality of lighting to enhance exhibitions, whilst enabling a lower temperature and a decrease in the level of UV lights in the gallery. As a result, the portraits were brought to life by new lighting, whilst the gallery reduced its energy consumption.
Similarly, at the Courtauld Gallery in London, the conversion of a picture store into a gallery area within Somerset House took careful coordination and involved intricate techniques, including installing a system that enabled the gallery to control the humidity and temperature in line with Art Council England guidelines, to protect the paintings whilst maintaining the elegant aesthetics of the gallery itself.
In an ideal world, all electrical restoration projects involving historical buildings should use a mixture of the old and new. Ideally, appliances, systems and wiring should all be at the forefront of technology, whilst keeping the beauty of the old features and fittings where possible. The renovation of buildings such as Buckingham Palace are certainly demanding projects – but in my experience, these are also often the most rewarding.
About the author
Luke Czerpak is the Compliance Manager at Eaton Electrical (www.eatononline.co.uk) and has been involved in many heritage projects including museums and art galleries, as well as National Trust and Landmark Trust properties.