Rebirth of the Royal Albert Hall

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The £70m refurbishment of the Royal Albert Hall has provided a lesson in how high-profile restorations should be done.

Next month an official ceremony will mark the completion of the refurbishment of the Royal Albert Hall.

The programme has been running since 1990 and cost £70m, but this is no disaster story. The project has been completed on time and on budget.

The grade I-listed building, which dates from 1871, has been given modern facilities for performers and promoters, while the public areas such as the restaurants, foyers and the auditorium have been refurbished and upgraded.

Although the masterplan for the project was drawn up in 1990, the hall's management had to wait until 1996, when it won £40m of grants from the Arts Council and Heritage lottery funds, before work could begin.

Building projects funded with lottery cash have a chequered history. In May the National Audit Office reported that 10 out of 15 big capital projects funded by the Arts Council had to ask for additional lottery money because of delays and cost overruns. But the Royal Albert Hall was not one of them.

'Our industry gets panned for the things that go wrong, but this is one for the industry to be proud of', declares Bob Jones, senior project manager at Taylor Woodrow, which has been the construction manager for the Royal Albert Hall since 1995.

Corny though it may sound, the parties involved swear that teamwork was the main reason for their success. Throughout the project, the hall's own project management team, led by Katherine Sells and Ian Blackburn, shared an on-site office with Taylor Woodrow and the Building Design Partnership, which was the architect, structural engineer, building services engineer and cost consultant. Jones says that sharing an office 'really helps a project like this. I've worked this way before but it's not a typical set-up. But this is how I would encourage people to run a large, complex building contract.' The hall's Katherine Sells adds that the external advisers 'became very much a part of the organisation'.

The Royal Albert Hall is run as a charity to promote the arts and sciences and to maintain the building. It matched the lottery funding with £30m of its own money, which came from revenues from concerts, shows and corporate events. This meant the hall had to stay open during the building work; every day the project managers conferred with show managers to avoid disrupting a schedule of 300 shows a year, complete with rehearsals.

This is how i would encourage people to run a large, complex building contract

Bob Jones, Taylor Woodrow

The need to keep the hall open was one reason why the restoration took seven years to complete.

The single biggest part of the project was the creation of an underground service yard beneath the south steps of the hall. Previously, all the equipment for each show had to be loaded and unloaded at street level. This was increasingly impractical as the number of events at the hall increased and neighbours complained about noise, and so an underground loading bay was created; lorries now drive down a ramp that leads underneath the hall. The excavation is also home to new dressing rooms and plant rooms, which allowed for the creation of public spaces in other parts of the hall.

New chairs with more legroom and flip-up seats, together with new floors, have been installed inside the auditorium, while the roof has been given new glazing and slates. The plaster cornices and scrolls running around the inside of the hall's famous dome have been restored, with the plasterers working from a specially built carriage suspended from rails running around the inside edge of the dome.

Leslie Fair, BDP's cost consultant on the Albert Hall project, explains there were 'significant unknowns' in the costing, partly because the hall had to remain open and partly because 'in a building this age, you don't know what you'll discover as you take the floors up and so on. Invariably the structure is not as you expected'.

Construction costs can also vary significantly over the course of eight years. Even so, there were only 'minor hiccups' with budgeting, says Leslie, thanks in part to the programme being broken down into 30 projects – although cash shortfalls did lead to some of the less urgent projects being set aside for another day, such as replacement of some of the chairs and some floors in the auditorium.

One of the preconditions of lottery funding was that the hall would provide guided tours to the public. These will begin from April, so the team's achievement will reach the widest possible audience.

Albert Hall timeline

1990 Building Design Partnership appointed to create masterplan 1993 South Steps purchased. An underground service yard, dressing rooms and plant rooms would be built under the steps in a massive excavation running four storeys deep 1996 £40m Lottery grants awarded 1997 Ground floor corridor and Elgar restaurant refurbished 1998 Excavation beneath South Steps begins 1999 New kitchens completed and backstage corridors refurbished 2000 Auditorium refurbishment begins. New bars and box office completed 2001 Underground service yard completed. Work starts on new South Porch 2002 Auditorium and air-cooling completed. Second tier corridor and boxes redecorated 2003 South Porch opens. Café Consort opens. West Porch bar completed 2004 Building work ends

Costs

  • Excavation beneath South Steps, including restoration of terraces and 1851 memorial: £22m
  • Public foyers, restaurants, function rooms, toilets, circulation areas and signage: £9.9m
  • New South Porch, including offices on upper floors: £4.3m
  • Auditorium: reconstruction of tiers, restoration of plasterwork and redecoration: £4.1m
  • Backstage: dressing rooms, stage lifts and technical equipment: £3.2m
  • New kitchens, offices, passenger lifts and other building services: £4m
  • Refurbishment of organ: £1.7m Reglazing of roof: £1.7m
  • Improvements to precinct around the Hall: £0.9m
  • Prelims, surveys, tests, direct works, temporary works and contingencies: £3.9m Construction cost subtotal: £55.7m
  • Fees for construction managers, architects and other specialists: £14.3m Grand total: £70m Source: Building Design Partnership
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