Everything You Didn't Know About Buckingham Palace's $500 Million Renovation

Buckingham Palace may be only one of Queen Elizabeth's many homes, but it's also her official London residence, as well as one of Britain's biggest tourist attractions. But in the 184 years Buckingham Palace has been home to British monarchs, it's seen its share of wear and tear. So in 2017, work began on a 10-year, $500 million renovation, the first since just after World War II, CNN reports. Work is being undertaken wing by wing, the Buckingham Palace Reservicing Programme Summary Report notes, so the palace can remain operational throughout the project.

The refurbishment is not primarily to spruce up the decor, but rather to update the infrastructure. As the royal family's website points out, most of the services in the building — heating, plumbing, electrical, and data systems — have not been updated for almost 70 years, when they repaired damage from World War II. Concerns are that the older wiring could be at risk for starting a fire or burst pipes creating a flood, damaging the priceless decor, furnishings, and artworks in the palace. The hope is also to make Buckingham Palace more energy efficient, aiming to reduce its annual carbon footprint by 30%.

Additionally, as there are over 100,000 visitors annually to the palace interior as guests of the queen for "state banquets, lunches, dinners, receptions and garden parties," updated accessibility features like additional elevators were needed to bring Buckingham Palace up to modern standards, CNN notes. The palace is also being fitted with a new roof.

The East Wing is the focus for the first part of the renovation

Of the 775 rooms in Buckingham Palace, there are 52 bedrooms for guests and the royal family, 188 bedrooms for staff, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms (via the Independent). The first phase of work is primarily taking place in the East Wing at the front of the palace, a section that was built for Queen Victoria in 1845. All of the furnishings, including over 3,000 items from the royal collection — including paintings, chandeliers, fine furniture, mirrors, clocks, books, textiles, and ceramics  — were removed from the building to allow work to begin in Spring 2019, which the royal family showcased on Twitter. However, they note that larger furniture items that are "too heavy or too complex to be moved" will be left in place, but covered and protected during construction.

One of the primary projects undertaken so far has been removing the 19th century Chinese wallpaper in the Yellow Drawing Room, which is located in the southeast corner of Buckingham Palace. The wallpaper was originally from King George IV's pavilion in Brighton — which Queen Victoria sold — and was discovered by Queen Mary in storage after World War I, an Instagram video notes. It was then hung in the Yellow Drawing Room. The fragile wallpaper was carefully removed for much needed conservation, and also to protect it from being damaged during construction. Once work is complete, the restored wallpaper will be returned to the room.

A number of projects are in progress at once at Buckingham Palace

After the East Wing, the Summary Report states that the Buckingham Palace renovation project will then move clockwise through the palace, with work beginning on the South Wing, Southwest Wing and North Wing. However, the State Apartments and West Wing will be worked on three staterooms at a time throughout the project to enable visitors to still visit the palace during the summer months when it is open to the public — approximately 500,000 tourists visit the palace each year.

In November 2020, the royal family reported that work had begun on the Picture Gallery in the West Wing (via the royal family website), one of the principal state rooms at the palace, and one of the first to be renovated. Its 200-year-old external roof will be replaced, along with the infrastructure updates. All of the art, including a number of Old Masters works by artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer, were carefully removed, the first time since the room was last renovated in 1976. Of those paintings, 65 are being moved to a new exhibit in the Queen's Gallery called "Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace" that will allow the paintings to be displayed while construction continues.

There are plenty of projects still to come for Buckingham Palace

Some of the areas of Buckingham Palace are almost unrecognizable due to the renovations. CNN reports that the Grand Entrance Hall has been transformed from a place of regal entry to a staging ground of sorts for supplies for the remodel. A marble statue of Flora by Pietro Terani was too challenging to move, so a wood casing has been erected to protect it from the construction.

Additionally, there is scaffolding everywhere, inside and out, and protective coverings line the exterior scaffolds. Coventry Scaffolding notes that originally the scaffolds were put in place to inspect the palace's exterior, but then the entire exterior section being worked on was fully scaffolded so workers could do repairs to the stone. In addition, portable offices have been erected in The Quadrangle — the central open area in the middle of the palace — to support the building work.

Other areas that are being worked on in Buckingham Palace currently are the Marble Hall and the Centre Room, the latter of which is the room in the East Wing adjacent to the Buckingham Palace balcony where the royal family often gather after special events to greet the crowds amassed in the square below. The project is expected to continue on until 2027.

Architects used state-of-the-art technology to plan the renovations

The architects for the Buckingham Palace Reservicing Project used a high tech system called Point Cloud to help them design the renovations and modifications to the building with as much information as possible (via the royal family website). Using lasers, the machines survey each room, and then that data is used to create a 3D rendering of the palace.

Tony Barnard, architectural lead for the project, noted, "Point Cloud surveying is a way to capture a really detailed map of the building. That in turn allows us to have a level of information that we've never had before. We can then use that information in a smart way to design the reserving and alterations that we need to carry out to the palace."

The Point Cloud technology has been particularly important in redesigning the new elevators. The old elevators, some of which are small, cramped, and inefficient, are also a challenge for the daily functioning of the palace. In particular, some of the pathways to deliver food from the kitchens to the front of the palace are particularly impractical, and the additional lifts would improve the efficiency of the route staff are able to take to move through the palace on their duties.

COVID-19 had a financial impact, but in some ways assisted the renovation

While pandemic lockdown requirements — and the related decrease in tourism with Buckingham Palace closed to visitors — caused a significant loss of revenue to the Sovereign Grant of approximately £10.8 million, Town & Country reports the royal family's travel expenditures were decreased as well by approximately £2 million, which helped offset some lost funds. The Sovereign Grant is a fund paid into annually by the British government to pay expenditures relating to the queen's official duties, as well as maintaining official royal palaces.

However, the lack of tourism turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the lack of visitors helped the team make progress. Sir Michael Stevens, the queen's treasurer, told reporters that since no large events were possible, "A substantial programme of property projects and maintenance was carried out, and as planned, our reservicing project accelerated in terms of both spending and major works starting on site," he explained. Additionally, a palace source told Town & Country that the project is both on time and on budget.

That's an advantage, Stevens noted, as the hope is to have the palace in shape for Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee in 2022, the Independent reported. "Obviously as we look ahead to 2022 we have the Platinum Jubilee celebrations to look forward to and all our works plans for Buckingham Palace are designed to ensure the palace can play a significant part in those celebrations," he shared.