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Donald Insall restores world’s largest 19th-century glasshouse at Kew Gardens

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The restoration of Temperate House retains as much of the original design as possible, and in-depth research has brought a new understanding of the original design

Working with Donald Insall Associates, Kew Gardens has completed the largest restoration project in its history. Designed by Decimus Burton and first opened in 1863, it is the world’s largest 19th-century glasshouse, and home to some rare and threatened plants.

The glasshouse is the latest project at Kew undertaken by Donal Insall Associates, who also worked on the Palm House, Campanile and Marianne North Gallery. The firm was appointed in 2012 as conservation architects, having previously completed a conservation management plan or the Grade I-listed structure.

Aj drawing crop square copy

Aj drawing crop square copy

Source: Donald Insall Associates

A sketch by architectural assistant Rory Chisholm depicting the ornate ventilation actuators in the glasshouse

Some 69,000 individual elements were removed and cleaned, repaired or replaced during the five-year restoration project, which sought to keep as much of the original render and materials as possible. Research undertaken into Burton’s design revealed many of his ornate means of disguising building services, such as the urns that hide the chimney flues and high-level ventilation actuators (shown above).

The Temperate House is to be home to a new series of initiatives for Kew Gardens, such as Kew Babies and Kew Allotments. Speaking at the opening, David Attenborough said, ’In some circumstances, the only way you can prove that a particular species is that species, is to come to Kew and compare what you have with what is here. This is why people come from all over the world to the Kew Herbarium, and to these great glasshouses… it is a breathtakingly beautiful space.’

Architect’s view

The restoration of the Temperate House has been a complex and immensely rewarding project, recalibrating contemporary understanding of Victorian architecture and the development of past innovations. New glazing, mechanical ventilation systems, path and bedding arrangements all took their founding principles from Decimus Burton’s own drawings, held within Kew’s archives.

Aimée Felton, lead architect, Donald Insall Associates

Spiral staircase in the temperate house. credit rbg kew

Spiral staircase in the temperate house. credit rbg kew

Client’s view

It’s been amazing watching this project unfold, the building emerge gloriously and some of the world’s rarest plants safely reach their home. This is world-class horticulture, science and design working together to create something truly impressive. The Temperate House is a glistening cathedral where the new glass allows the sun to stream in and the ironwork has been restored to its glossy best. And I’m most excited that it is for everyone, from young to old, for budding gardeners or aspiring artists, for those making a pilgrimage from great distances, and for our local community.

Richard Barley, director of horticulture, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


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