“The density of development means that the external walls of the building must be reserved for living accommodation and the kitchens and bathrooms are all planned internally to be mechanically ventilated.”

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Architects “Barbican Redevelopment” April 1959

Mechanical ventilation

In the majority of flats, the kitchen, bathroom and toilet are mechanically ventilated. It’s what they call a forced extraction system. In most flats there is an extract unit over the cupboards near the ceiling. In the kitchen the plan was for the mechanical ventilation system to be supplemented by ‘an ample hood over the cooker and grill to collect cooking fumes and heat’.

There is a plant room at the top of each building with a powerful fan which sucks stale air out of flats via the grilles in the kitchens, bathrooms and toilets, up the duct-work behind the walls, and out through the roof.

Generally, the ventilation will be under the Barbican Estate Office’s control, but in some cases (usually flats at 02 level) the mechanical ventilation will be under your control from a switch in the kitchen fascia panel (unless the units have been changed by previous owners). You should not interfere with this or have the system closed off without the Barbican Estate Office’s permission since it can affect the overall ventilation of the block.

Window ventilators

In most windows, there are grilles which you should keep open so that clean air can replace what is sucked out – but don’t worry too much about oxygen depletion, at least not if your front door is as draughty as mine.

The sliding ventilators above the windows are cord-operated, except for a small section which is permanently open.


The Barbican Estate Office state that ‘some smells are simply attributable to community living‘.

The ventilation system is designed to extract 20 litres or air per second from bathrooms, 60 litres of air per second from kitchens, and 7 litres of air per second from separate toilets, and this operates 24 hours a day.

This sounds like an amazing amount of air to shift in a second. What I find absolutely mystifying though is why the extract rate is only 7 litres per second for toilets. Someone really should have explained to the architects that smells related to time spent reading back copies of the Reader’s Digest produces a much more urgent ventilation problem than any amount of ‘community living’. Anyway, the system is apparently designed to clear smells as quickly as possible.

There is a fan in the kitchen to boost the extract rate to 90 litres per second during the ‘usual’ cooking times of morning, midday, and evenings. I can confirm the efficiency of the extraction equipment. It regularly clears the garlic-laden cooking smells of one of my neighbours out of their flat and into mine.

A few flats have no central ventilation system. Instead they have a 2-speed extractor unit through the wall to the outside.


Cleaning of the ventilation system is carried out regularly by the Barbican Estate workforce. There’s a mortise lock in the ventilation duct in the kitchen of most flats (or the utility room in Tower Block flats). Don’t open this because it could adversely affect the ventilation of several flats.

The Barbican Estate advises that ventilation grilles in bathrooms and toilets should be brushed clean three times a year to maintain the efficiency of the ventilation and should not be covered up. They are not adjustable.