In October 1834, a serious fire destroyed most of the Parliament Buildings and when a Commons Committee was established to enquire into the ventilation and acoustics of a new building, Reid's work in Edinburgh was brought to its attention. A Temporary House of Commons was speedily erected to Reid's design with Lord Sudeley acting as architect.

In the system employed in the Temporary House, which was actually in use for some fifteen years, air was drawn in from New Palace Yard (although Reid's original design involved the use of a high turret), whence it passed into a basement plenum chamber, where it was heated or cooled. The air then passed through numerous apertures in the floor, upwards through the Chamber and eventually into a false ceiling connected to a downcast shaft. The vitiated air then became the combustion air for a furnace at the base of a chimney 120 ft (36 m) high (fig.3). This was probably the first instance of what we would now call 'displacement ventilation'.

The temporary House of Commons. [Click on thumbnail for larger image]

Lord Sudeley, Chairman of the Commissioners who selected the design for the New Houses of Parliament, said in the House of Lords "The ventilation of the [Temporary] House of Commons was complete and perfect ’ and the first plan of systematic ventilation ever carried out in this or any other country". In a written report he stated 'To the skill, zeal and determination of Dr Reid, it is owing that the members of the House of Commons can now pursue their senatorial duties without a sacrifice of either health or comfort. To him we owe the solution of the problem, that, by a proper system, ventilation may be obtained in the most trying and difficult circumstances' (Harris in Reid, 1858). In 1835, Sir Benjamin Hawes, Chairman of the Committee on Acoustics and Ventilation, which had originally recommended Reid's appointment, wrote to Reid ’You have facilitated public business, and prolonged the lives of public men’ (Harris in Reid, 1858).

The Committee of the House of Commons in its report in August 1846 stated 'The great improvement which Dr Reid has effected in the atmosphere of the existing House of Commons, [the Temporary one] can be appreciated by every Member of the House; and your Committee entirely concur in what they consider to be the general opinion in its favour' (Harris in Reid, 1858).

It is very clear from all the comments above that Reid's system for the Temporary House not only worked, but worked extremely well up until the time the New Houses of Parliament Building was ready for occupation in 1852. The essential features of the system were as follows —

1. a means of filtering the outside air, this was done with a veil 42ft (12.6m) long by 18ft 6in. (5.5m) deep;

2. a means of heating and moistening the air, this was done in a chamber below the House connected from below to an equalising plenum space immediately below the floor;

3. the facility to mix the heated air with unheated fresh air so that the temperature of supply could be varied as required;

4. a means of controlling the speed of throughput of air, this was done with a single valve between the extract duct in the roof space and the downcast shaft connected to the furnace and chimney;

5. the facility to run cold water through the heating pipes in summer to provide cooling and dehumidification (ice could be used in extreme weather).

Reid appears to have taken his duties very seriously and he would often stay in personal control of the system when the House was in session. His instructions were that the velocity of air supply was to be varied, not only in relation to temperature, but also in relation to the numbers present. He recorded that the number of variations applied to the system over a single sitting often varied between 50 and 100. The velocity of the air was to be increased when the temperature was high and he indicated that the building should be cooled overnight in summer by drawing air through it 'when the Members have retired'. In very hot weather cold (mains) water could be supplied to the heating coils or the air could be cooled 'in rare cases, by the use of ice', however, he adds 'but no mode is more capable of regulation, so economical, and so readily available, as a variation of velocity' (1844). Not only do we have an engineer here who understood the benefits of night purging, he also gave much consideration to economy of system operation.

One or two details of the system indicate Reid's thoroughness and are worthy of special mention. Reid made sure that the atmosphere supplied to The Speaker was separately controlled since he may be required to remain still for long periods of time, he also realised that people in the galleries would require a higher velocity for comfort because they were that much nearer to the gas lights, which, by their very nature, radiated large quantities of heat. It was possible for the controller of the system, in the lower levels, to check on the temperature in the House by means of a thermometer, which could be raised and lowered by means of a cord and pulley.

Reid's involvement in the New Houses of Parliament Building, which began almost as soon as Charles Barry had been appointed architect, did not lead to such a successful outcome. Barry, who was ten years older than Reid, did not take kindly to being told how wide or how high his towers had to be for ventilation purposes. The Commons Committee charged with investigating proposals for the New House had recommended that the 'whole space immediately below the two houses ’’ as well as between the ceiling and Roof should be prepared and altogether reserved for such arrangements as may be necessary' (Parliamentary Papers, 1835 (583)). However, it was apparent that Barry was unwilling to make the architecture subservient to the ventilation and he continually put obstacles in Reid's way, complaining, for example, about the costs of the central vitiated air tower, the ducts under the floors and roofs, the vertical airshafts etc. In 1845 there was a major row between the two men and Barry accused Reid of creating problems.

Reid, who had very strong opinions and a fiery temper, became so perplexed with the fact that Barry kept making alterations without, Reid would claim, due authority, that he was 'determined to cast off all responsibility unless proper arrangements were made in future for controlling the proceedings of the architect' (1858). Between 1846 and 1852 he would only attend the project under protest and his salary was stopped. Building work was held up for four years at one point. Reid's original scheme, which involved taking in air from high level at both ends of the building, through St Stephen's Tower (within which Barry had insisted in incorporating a clock and bells) and the Victoria Tower, and allowing vitiated air to escape through a spire-shaped tower over the Central Hall, was never fully brought to fruition. He was unfairly pilloried in the press, especially The Times.

In addition to his work on the heating and ventilation, Reid was called upon to use his expertise in acoustics to improve matters in the House of Commons and the ceiling was lowered on his recommendation. He was also asked, in 1844, to design the gas lighting for both Houses, but in 1846 the lighting of the Lords was given to Barry. Reid used 64 Argand burners behind glass panels to light the Commons, after the ceiling had been lowered, with what were probably the very first air-handling light fittings.

In 1852, the Peers were persuaded by the Marquis of Clanricarde to isolate their House from his plan, despite the dissenting voice of the Duke of Wellington amongst others. The Government followed the Lords' lead and handed over all design to Barry, however, a few weeks later they repented and asked Reid to come up with a satisfactory solution for the House of Commons. The building was physically split by means of screens below the Central Hall so that Barry could ventilate the Lords and Reid the Commons, although Reid still maintained that he could not produce a working system unless more control was placed on the architect by the Government. The result of this was that neither system worked properly when eventually they were first occupied for business at the start of the 1852 session.

Reid was, once again, expected to shoulder the blame, but he had been constantly requesting a full investigation of the whole process and eventually, in a vote which called him to the Bar of the House, the Government was defeated by more than two to one. He then pointed out the utter impossibility of their having any comfortable atmosphere in their New House until Barry's alterations to the original arrangements were put right. He was then empowered by the Government, in addition to other works adopted immediately during that session, to execute no less than thirty-five recommendations, which he afterwards made. He was also granted the arbitration he had so long demanded and he insisted on his right to cross-examine the architect at the enquiry which followed. Reid's cross-examination of Barry lasted for seven successive days and the whole investigation took thirty days. Reid was awarded compensation totalling over ’3 700, he was also paid six years salary (’4 400) retrospectively. This was presumably the first case of a person suing the Government for 'unfair dismissal'. The fact that Reid was totally vindicated appears to have been forgotten by later writers, for example, Sir Robert Cooke (Cooke, 1987).

A major bone of contention between Reid and Barry was that Reid did not seem to consider draughting to be part of his work and he steadfastly refused to produce any drawings. He must surely be criticised for this but, strangely, he was quite happy to produce drawings for St George's Hall and so one might deduce that this had more to do with his problems with Barry than with obstinacy.

Percy reported (Parliamentary Papers 1866 (981)) that 'there are many hundreds of air-courses under as well as above ground, beneath floors, in walls, over ceilings, and in roofs; ’’ there are enormous smoke-flues running horizontally within the and immediately under the roofs, with hundreds of chimneys in communication; there are, it is asserted, steam pipes of which the aggregate length is about 15 miles, and about 1 200 stopcocks and valves connected with these pipes; and there is a multitude of holes and crannies as intricate and tortuous as the windings of a rabbit warren'. It took Percy and two draughtsmen over six months to make a record of the building services as they existed at that time.

During the time he was involved with the Houses of Parliament, Reid was a Commissioner of the Health of Towns Commission, which eventually led to the enabling of the Public Health Act.


Cooke, R. 1987. The Palace of Westminster: Houses of Parliament. London: MacMillan.

Reid, D.B. 1837. Brief Outline Illustrations of the Alterations in the House of Commons. London (publisher not known).

Last modified 17 June 2009