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Lessons from Renkioi
10 November 2005

Peter Scher attended an interdisciplinary conference on Brunel’s famous military hospital organised by MARU and The Florence Nightingale Museum.

MARKING 150 YEARS since the military hospital received its first patients the Florence Nightingale Museum is mounting an exhibition about “Those Magnificent Huts”. Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1851 and the hospital at Renkioi are considered the two earliest significant examples of prefabricated buildings. Renkioi is cited in all the books on the history of hospital design and most health care architects will recognise the plan. The exhibition and the new illustrated booklet describe the building design and how it came into being in fascinating detail. And how it ended. It was an impressive achievement.

Brunel was commissioned by the War Minister early in 1855; two weeks later Brunel presented his preliminary design to the War Office, on 5 March an outline contract was let, a prototype hut was erected at Paddington and the first consignment of prefabricated units was unloaded on 7 May, just three months from the start. The 1500 bed hospital was completed and ready for use in July although no patients were admitted until 2 October. By March 1856 it had been extended to 2200 beds but the Crimean War had ended in February. The wards were demountable and on 20 September 1856 they were sold at public auction.

Brunel was a brilliant designer, devising not only the structure and finishes but the ventilation, water supply and drainage systems as well. An integrated design, rapidly prefabricated in England was then shipped and erected 1000 miles away. Contemporary accounts are all highly positive; the magnificent huts “worked” as a clean, safe, efficient and pleasant hospital - exactly as intended.

Alex Attewell, director of the Florence Nightingale Museum opened the conference and stressed the relevance of Renkioi to the current programme of hospital development and our concerns about planning, design and infection control. Phil Astley of MARU hoped that ideas from the gathering of expert delegates in the afternoon session would launch a stream of research. Eric Kentley then related the fascinating history of Brunel’s project based on well researched and well understood historical evidence.


The magnificent huts “worked” as
a clean, safe, efficient and
pleasant hospital

The conference was also much impressed by two other presentations.
The architect, Peter Clegg gave a lucid demonstration of sustainable building design in response to the impending crisis from global warming. Unlike wars and the necessity of military hospitals, climate change presents a completely new challenge for civilisation and the design of sustainable buildings, especially health care facilities, ought to be our very highest priority. Peter Clegg showed what is already achievable and built.

Kate Harmond’s presentation on nursing practice and modernisation may not have sprung directly from considerations of Renkioi. Her exposition of how our aspirations for health care relate to, and are changing, the practice and policies of the NHS was illuminating. Kate’s application of deep experience and practical solutions however resonated with Brunel’s own comment on his design – “Just a sober application of common sense.” This may be a new concept for the visionaries at the NHS.

Whether there are any useful and practical lessons for today to be learned from Renkioi will be revealed when MARU write up the results of the workshop. In addition to rediscovering the value of sober common sense, the other secret of Brunel’s success we learned, was that Sidney Herbert, the Minister for War, who gave him the commission for the hospital, was Brunel’s brother-in-law.

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Plan of Brunel-designed "huts" for Renkioi