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Impressive performance

Albert Hall Prince Philip yesterday officially unveiled the Royal Albert Hall's new South Steps development. Antony Oliver visited the building to discover a massive but so far well hidden, decade-long programme of work being carried out between performan

Good neighbourly conduct is vital when working in the heart of London's exclusive Kensington district.

And it is a testimony to the designers and contractors that for the last seven years little of the ongoing work to refurbish the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) has been noticed.

Of course a media blackout on the project has helped to keep things quiet. No promoter wants to risk sending its performers to a venue if there is any hint of it being a building site.

The fact is, with around 30 packages of work under way in the £66M Lottery funded refurbishment, the RAH has been, and will remain for the next two years, very much a construction site. It is just that few have noticed.

It is ironic therefore that, according to Taylor Woodrow construction manager Bob Older, the key to the project has been to tell people what is happening. He points out the difficulties during construction of the new basement. 'On one side Imperial College was conducting important research with a sensitive electron microscope, opposite the Royal College of Music had auditions to carry out and on the other side were the residents of the exclusive Albert Court.'

This South Steps basement project is the biggest single activity in the programme.

The ambitious £21M plan has seen the hall's old underground car park extended to create a proper access and lift system for stage equipment and instruments to avoid having to tramp them through public areas.

The 'five double decker bus deep' excavation also creates space for the hall's new air conditioning plant rooms, for the first time piping fresh air to often overheated guests. Those sweaty nights at the Proms could be a thing of the past thanks to a new ventilation tunnel taking cool air beneath the hall and up into the auditorium.

Careful planning by consultant BDP working hand in hand with main contractor John Doyle Construction, demolition contractor Griffiths McGee and construction manager Taylor Woodrow was crucial to phase the excavation and reduce ground movements. Piling subcontractor Stent Foundations also had a massive input to prevent the neighbours noticing the hole had Taylor Woodrow has worked at the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) since 1995. Construction manager Bob Older expects the firm to be there at least until 2003 when the current £1M a month programme of work is scheduled to end.

Three years on the project means there is little about the layout, operation and politics of the hall that Older does not know.

He oversees more than 30 individual packages of work that are either completed, ongoing or planned in the refurbishment programme. However, the shows have gone on and thanks to the unobtrusive construction activity, little of the work has been noticed by the visiting public.

'Most of my life is spent avoiding collisions with the 300 plus shows held each year at the hall, each of which usually has full rehearsals beforehand, ' says Older. To help this process go smoothly, Older and BDP project architect Martin Ward sit on the executive committee of client, the Corporation of the Hall of Art & Sciences. 'I feel like I work for the Hall, ' says Older proudly.

The client body is made up from volunteers who, as seat or box holders, have a great passion for the building. 'And they have a very good understanding of the hall and what we are doing, ' says Older insisting that they are a very easy organisation to work with.

BDP has also been working on the RAH's masterplan since the mid 90s. Structural director Michelle McDowell is familiar with working for this type of low profile private client, having just completed the new Number One Court at the All England Club in Wimbledon.

But she insists there are few similarities. 'At Wimbledon the club was closed for 50 weeks of the year allowing us to get on unhindered, ' she explains.

BDP has a multi-disciplinary role on the RAH project, she adds. 'We are the structural engineer, the architect, the landscape designer, the M&E consultant and the quantity surveyor. Each of these roles has a director assigned to it to ensure it goes smoothly.'

Ensuring this team works together has been vital.

The work can be divided into three main areas: upgrade or replace worn out services and structures; improve comfort;

increase revenue generating capacity through better use of space.

For example, the Hall used to accommodate 7,000 people.

However, while the capacity has fallen to only 5,500, all seats have been replaced to give more leg room and offer better and more comfortable views. Additional bar and restaurant facilities should reduce the interval crush.

And next time that you are in the Albert Hall look up. The eagle eyed might spot a well camouflaged maintenance cradle creeping around the hall's circumference.

Suspended on new roofmounted rails, the cradle is the work of Unusual Rigging, a firm more used to rigging stages and lights at the RAH than maintenance equipment.

'You have to look hard to spot it, ' says McDowell who has worked to ensure that the new velvet draped structure does not bring the house down.

Suspended in the cradle, craftsmen will spend the next year first repairing the ceiling and then installing a new cove around the top of the walls to replace a feature that the hall lost 50 years ago. And rather than erecting a scaffold and risking covering the entire auditorium with dust and debris, the cradle will contain the work and move gracefully around the hall until the work is complete.

'We carried out a full structural analysis and concluded that the roof could easily cope with the extra loading, ' she explains.

But most of the Albert Hall's performances involve a full orchestra of delicate instruments and are attended by an audience keen to avoid getting building dust all over their fine evening wear.

'Dust is an ongoing issue, ' says Older. 'This involves sheeting, taping up doors and much hoovering - and it is not just the audiences we worry about but the 100 plus staff at the hall who need a decent environment to work in.'

been opened up next door.

And although Westminster City Council set out the minimum standards, Older insists these were just the starting point for him. 'We had a number of receptions in the hall and numerous presentations so that everyone knew what we were doing, when and why, ' he explains.

Before anything could begin the entire South Steps furniture, including the 1851 Memorial, stone steps and balustrades, had to be removed by specialist stonework renovation contractor Cathedral Works Organisation.

'Everything had to be labelled and recorded before being taken for cleaning, ' explains Older.

The original single storey underground car park was then completely excavated to below ground slab level ready to start excavation of the new 75m by 45m basement.

The first stage was to surround the entire area with secant and contiguous piles to isolate and shore up the excavation.

These varied in size between 450mm and 1,200mm in diameter. Stent Foundations carried out this tricky task, complicated by the confined working area and the need to avoid damage to existing structures.

Once in place the new excavation could begin. The original plan had been to use bottom up construction. However, it soon became clear, explains BDP structural engineer Steve Coyne, that a more cost effective solution would be to use the permanent structure to prop a top down excavation.

'We carried out extensive design work and analysis to predict movement all around the area. This meant setting up a precise levelling regime to monitor movements over two years before work started, ' says Coyne.

A 10mm maximum ground movement was fixed to prevent damage to these structures.

Excavation was phased so that the central sections of the propping floor beams could be constructed before the piled walls were exposed. A battered excavation was left in place to support the piles before being locally excavated to complete the beams (see diagram).

Once all beams were in place, excavation continued a further 5m below and the floor slab was cast to prop the piles at their base. This included breaking into and underpinning the original Hall foundations to give new access into the hall's basement area. These piled foundations have been left exposed 'to prove they are there', explains Coyne.

At this level work also began to hand dig the new 50m long, 1.96m internal diameter segment lined and grouted ventilation tunnel. Specialist tunnelling contractor Gallaghers was brought in to construct this structure and the shaft up into the hall.

Design of the tunnel led to an interesting problems, explains Coyne - the discovery of a well directly beneath the hall, originally used to water the Royal Horticultural Society gardens.

'We knew there was something there but we were not sure exactly what it would look like, ' he explains. 'Once its location was discovered, it meant having to curve the ventilation tunnel in plan to accommodate it.'

New ventilation plant has been installed in the basement along with improvements to the boilers and heating equipment.

However, the hall's visitors will have to wait until next year before everything is commissioned.

But the rest of the basement extension is already in full use, with delivery lorries taking equipment up two floors straight to the stage via a new giant props lift and enlarged backstage area.

Of course, Prince Philip will have seen little evidence of this activity. But he will have been assured the work will secure the Hall's future as a modern concert venue for many years to come.

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