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Moving Opera House

Even before the singers moved out of the famous Covent Garden theatre, Keltbray had moved in.

THE LONG awaited development at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is progressing well

despite the highly publicised political wrangling surrounding it.

'The project is separate from all the politics and the programme is unaffected because the money is in place,' says Richard Lines, construction manager with Schal, the firm managing the work.

The Arts Council National Lottery Board is providing £55 million of the total £240 million funding, with the balance made up from the Royal Opera House.

The opera company only moved out this summer - the final performance was in mid-July - but building work started in June 1996. So for more than a year the construction team built and

demolished around a working theatre (or House, as all those who work on site refer to the building).

'We've a good relationship with the House,' says Mr Lines. 'We understand how they work and we tried not to impact on them.'

Working around a rehearsing and performing opera company was inevitably not without its problems. 'Keeping them going was a strain at times,' admits Gareth Lewis, Schal's senior project manager.

As well as dealing with Royal Opera House inter-relations, Schal faces many challenges on the huge London building project.

Logistics are a major issue on the city-centre site where there will be as many as 80 trade packages with more than 450 staff working during the peak labour period.

A just-in-time delivery seq-uence is in place, with all site traffic taken off the public high-way to run round the edge of the House. To achieve this road management system, Schal negotiated with Westminster Council to take possession of a section of Russell Street and the Piazza.

'There are a lot of things Westminster planners say they won't do,' says Mr Lines. 'But you have to prove your case and they will adapt. We work very closely with them to minimise the effect of the development on the neighbours.'

With the opera company relocated and the extended site boundaries in place, site work is progressing on all fronts.

Demolition is almost complete and the initial piling work and new build is well under way.

A large proportion of the existing House is being knocked down to make way for a new hi-tech theatre. The £1 million-plus demolition phase covers knocking down the 1858 flytower and dismantling the steel and glass floral hall. No less than 3,000 loads of muck, weighing 20 tonnes, were taken off site - which gives some idea of the size. A total of 60,000 tonnes of brick and hardcore were knocked down and taken away, together with 500 tonnes of steel.

Associated works include underpinning external walls of the grade I listed auditorium, a Proscenium Arch (the front part of the stage, the curtain and its frame) support system, and facade retention.

The building team started to knock down the 1858 fly tower this summer. A new 50-m flytower, sitting on 2.1-m diameter piles with a 5-m undeream will be built, offering state-of-the-art backstage facilities.

During the 12-week demolition programme, the antiquated 32-m tower was broken up and taken off site. 'Not a lot of work has been done since before the turn of the century,' says Mr Lines.

'The site team found some fascinating pieces of old equipment,' he recalls. 'It was like something out of Frankenstein. We found an old mercury arc rectifier which was being used to power the set.'

Not surprisingly, with such out-dated equipment and safety such a major issue, the House employed full-time firemen, three of whom are now working full-time on the construction project.

A lot of effort has been devoted to redesigning scenery movement.

Changing sets used to take anything up to 24 hours, but a new wagon system which runs through the building should reduce the time to just a matter of minutes.

Perhaps the most unusual demolition job on the project was the Floral Hall. The glass and steel structure was dismantled, label-led, cradled and stored. All the structure's bolts were greased and replaced, where necessary, six months before dismantling began.

'The plan was to take the structure down like a Meccano set - and it worked,' explains Mr Lewis.

Careful dismantling was essential because the structure will be replaced, albeit in a smaller form and at a higher level. Around 50 per cent of the glass and steel will be used on the House and English Heritage insists that the remain-ing sections are to be used on other projects.

The Floral Hall will be mocked up off-site in February next year before it is replaced at the House. A foundry in Gloucestershire is casting new sections, using old techniques, for the vault roof.

Many areas of the House will be protected and the grade I listed auditorium seating (but not the stage) is being retained.

The auditorium 'could probably have been built quicker and better, but that is another story', says Mr Lines.

Instead, the historic building's external walls were underpinned, with all work carried out when the opera company was in residence.

A listed section of facade is also being retained.

Once again the site team worked with Westminster Council to secure a road closure. Mini piles, thorough the pavement, were installed to support the external structural steel propping system. The pile design avoided the services in the road and located the pile cap on top of the pavement.

The demolition phase and temporary works mark the beginning of this huge prestigious project, set to finish before the turn of the century.

Perhaps, by then, the arts fraternity will have decided which opera and ballet companies are to reside in the splendid new building.