Almost three years ago we were commissioned to manage the construction for the National Theatre redevelopment, an £80m project, for one of the most prestigious performing arts venues in Britain.
The project fell under two phases for which we were appointed as construction manager because of our approach to the back-of-house areas – the heart of the theatre – as opposed to focusing solely on the public-facing buildings.
Our primary task was the renovation of the National Theatre production and behind-the-scenes areas – a huge undertaking due to the sheer number of interconnected rooms and shared services.
We looked to modernise and conceive a dynamic environment for the theatre’s army of workers, which included creating digital suites for the production of onsite theatre trailers.
“The single greatest challenge is the fact all construction work had to be undertaken while the theatre remained fully functional”
We incorporated state-of-the-art 3D visualisation studios for scene lighting and musical productions, as well as special effects including pyrotechnics, flooding and explosions.
In addition, we were to improve the riverside entrance, which 12m people walk past each year.
We were tasked with making this work more efficiently for the theatre while drawing people’s attention to the space.
We built new bars, shops and an outdoor green space in the form of garden terraces.
Working theatre challenge
The single greatest challenge is the fact all construction work had to be undertaken while the theatre remained fully functional, without losing a minute of production time.
We worked with individual departments to adapt to their needs, and this meant factoring in matinée and evening shows; our priority was to avoid disruption to any performance-linked activity – rehearsals, sound checks and casting.
We came up with technical solutions to minimise noise.
Key to this was co-ordinating our day-to-day building activities, which saw us work closely with the staff and their production schedule, sometimes planning more than a year in advance.
“Our construction schedule was more of a moving, living document, allowing us to remain flexible”
Tasks that were a possible risk to the public or had potential noise concerns were completed overnight, such as asbestos removal or excessive drilling.
Our construction schedule was more of a moving, living document, allowing us to remain flexible.
Things could change at any time in the theatre programme.
Bond director shifts the schedule
For example, James Bond director Sam Mendes directed his version of King Lear and because his availability was stretched and rehearsal times limited, our schedule was modified on a daily, often hourly, basis.
Part of the brief involved working to modernise the prop rooms, which had previously been devoid of natural daylight.
The work in these rooms requires natural light, so we installed ‘saw-tooth’ roofs that consist entirely of skylights, resulting in a dramatic change in the working environment for staff.
“I got to know everyone from the caterers to the carpenters by their first names – and the passion from the theatre was infectious”
It was not your conventional construction project and we had to maintain a collaborative approach due to our time constraints.
A big part of this was building and managing relationships across the board.
I got to know everyone from the caterers to the carpenters by their first names – and the passion from the theatre was infectious.
There were no defeatist attitudes among the construction delivery team. I was fortunate to have a fantastic dedicated Lendlease team, who were committed to the project 24/7.
The building is now complete with modern facilities and flooded with natural light, transforming it into a building for the 21st Century.
Dennis Wilson is a project director at Lendlease