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Kier and NG Bailey set the stage for Chester's new Storyhouse theatre

Kier and NG Bailey have collaborated closely to combine heritage assets and state-of-the-art new facilities at Chester’s groundbreaking theatre and cultural centre.

Project: Storyhouse theatre
Contract value: £37m
Region: North-west
Main contractor: Kier
M&E subcontractor: NG Bailey
Architect: Bennetts Associates
Theatre consultants: Charcoal Blue
Acoustic engineers: Sandy Brown
Start date: June 2016
Completion date: May 2017

In a city like Chester, with a history stretching all the way back to the Roman fortress of Deva Victrix, heritage is of paramount importance to any construction project.

This rich history is just one of the major considerations for contractors Kier and NG Bailey on the city’s Storyhouse theatre – the largest regional arts project under construction in the UK.

Starting with an eight-week archaeological phase, the £37m project has thrown up an array of technical challenges since work began in June.

The largest public building ever constructed in the city, Storyhouse is a complex design of both old and new, with a redeveloped 1930s art deco cinema forming one half of the building and an adjoining new-build section making up the other.

It’s this combination of old and new that has tested Kier and NG Bailey to the limit, with bespoke design, meticulous attention to detail and precise planning needed across the whole project.

Cinema returns to Chester

The Storyhouse will provide a theatre, cinema and library space in the city centre, adjacent to the city’s current bus station and the proposed site of the £300m Northgate redevelopment: a major shopping, leisure and residential scheme.

The former Odeon, an art deco cinema built in 1936, will house a library and new cinema space, while the new-build element will host an 800-seat proscenium theatre, as well as a studio theatre with spaces for 150 retractable seats.

The building will also provide a restaurant, rooftop bar, and exhibition and hospitality space throughout.

It will mark the first time there has been a permanent cinema in the city for more than 10 years, with the Odeon having sat vacant since 2007.

Source: ReNew Chester

Refurbishing and re-fitting the Grade II-listed Odeon, with sweeping art deco ceilings and a brick-clad facade – one of only two of its type in the UK – has proved to be one of the project’s biggest challenges, explains Kier senior project manager Phil White.

The nature of the building meant that many of the fit-out and refurbishment solutions had to be bespoke, he explains, with more than two years of planning undertaken to make sure any major issues could be tackled when the firm first got to work on the building.

Kier, NG Bailey, lead architects Bennetts Associates, acoustician Sandy Brown and architects Ellis Williams were all heavily involved in these early stages.

The Odeon will house a bar and café on its ground floor, with a cinema on the first floor and library space all around. But before any of the new-build elements could be put in place, the team had to restore the old venue to its former glory. The building was one cinema when it first opened, but had been converted into a five-screen multiplex in the 1970s.

The team worked on an extensive plan for both the old building and the new, with an early involvement period of two years, using laser scanning on the old Odeon and a Level 2 BIM model on the new build.

Turning five screens into one

But despite this, Mr White says that there were “a lot of surprises” when the team began to get to work on site.

“Because of the listed nature of the building, we were limited to how many investigations we could do internally to understand the existing structure,” he says, adding that the team had to rely on the data gathered via the laser scan and by traditional 2D drawings.

“As you can imagine, heritage officers in Chester are very, very particular.”

Kier worked with the city council to undertake an extensive asbestos removal before works began in earnest, which started with what Mr White describes as “a massive temporary works feat in itself”.

“Originally the removal of the five screens was a facade retention on both sides to prop up the structure,” he explains.

“Heritage officers in Chester; they are very, very particular”

Phil White, Kier

“But working with our temporary works department, we were able to value engineer that out, so effectively where the original columns were we just had raking props; we put piled bases in by each column, and put raking props in.”

By doing this, the team could take out the existing steel frame and install a new steel structure, which then links back to the building’s original columns to provide stability.

Kier Chester Theatre 5

Kier Chester Theatre 5

The new theatre will seat up to 800 people

Once the five screens were stripped out, the team could then install the new cinema and projection room.

The cinema follows a box-within-a-box design, sitting on columns above an open bar area and with library space all around on the ground and first floors.

The cinema’s projector also has the ability to project both ways, meaning that it can project both into the cinema, and outwards to the library, where major events and educational films can be shown on a drop-down screen below the old building’s sweeping art deco ceiling.

Soundproofing a cinema

But constructing a cinema within a library meant that acoustics were a massive factor in the design, Mr White explains.

The walls include six to eight sheets of soundboard, plasterboard and insulation, while both the floors and the walls include two concrete decks each to make sure the cinema is isolated acoustically.

“For the floor, we pour one deck, then we get a special acoustic matting, put that down, and pour the next deck on top of it,” Mr White says, adding that the same process applies to the walls.

But the cinema also needs a vast amount of services and specialist equipment – all of which needs to run into the cinema from the outside, while keeping everything soundproof.

“We never got to the point where we had to aesthetically change the building”

Ian Simms, NG Bailey

NG Bailey project manager Ian Simms explains that the acoustic tolerances and finding space to fit existing services around the old Odeon structure has been a huge challenge. “It’s certainly something I’ve never been involved in before and it’s been a real eye-opener,” he says.

“The amount of containment, segregation, spatial requirements we needed, and trying to find the routes required to actually install it – we created 2D drawing after 2D drawing, and trying to go out there and physically find somewhere for those services to fit has been a massive challenge.”

Because of the Grade II listing, the team ruled out using offsite manufacture for the services early on in the planning, meaning that many ended up being bespoke.

He adds that a collaborative approach with Kier and architect Ellis Williams (EWA), as well as acoustician Sandy Brown, has been vital to tackling the intricacies of the listed structure.

Chester’s Storyhouse in numbers

To build Chester’s Storyhouse, Kier and its supply chain have:

  • Used more than 1,100 tonnes of steel
  • Installed over 35 miles of wiring
  • Repointed approximately 1,800 sq m of brickwork
  • Used over 18 tonnes of plasterboard to build the cinema box
  • Fixed around 500 sq m of copper cladding on the new building
  • Removed a steel beam weighing over 22 tonnes which spanned the length of the existing building

“When we came across any issues in the building, we did workshops with EWA and Kier where we would get together before trying to eliminate any problems,” Mr Simms says.

“We never got to the point where we had to aesthetically change the building; as a team we managed to get round the issues by creating other service areas, for example, so we kept that Grade II-listed building intact.”

The team has also tweaked the design to make maintenance and installation of services both safer and more efficient.

Kier Chester Theatre 6

Kier Chester Theatre 6

The old and new buildings will be linked by a feature staircase

One example is the heating units in the main library space, where the original design called for some of the 12 heating units to be installed in the building’s roof spaces.

However, Kier and NG Bailey worked together closely to reposition and combine the heating units into one, which now sits under the floor of the library – making them much safer to install and maintain.

Using this approach means that all the services can be acoustically isolated, so that the library and cinema box can sit alongside each other without interference.

New build, different challenges

The old Odeon links to the new structure via a feature staircase, thereby attaching the library and cinema space to the new building, which houses the 800-seat theatre and a 150-seat studio, as well as a rooftop bar.

To build the new structure, the existing eight-storey Commerce House office block was demolished, and again Chester’s long and varied archaeological history represented a major factor in the building’s early phases.

“Being Chester, we had an archaeological phase at the outset of the job that ran for eight weeks,” Mr White explains, with the team digging up Neolithic, Roman and medieval material throughout that programme.

Mr White adds that the ground brought its own set of challenges when putting the steel frame in place. “What’s in the ground is the biggest unknown,” he says. “Once you’re out of the ground, your steel is all designed but when you’re digging holes you just don’t know what you’re going to come across.”

“You can see from the amount of services and conduits on display how critical NG Bailey are to this process”

Phil White, Kier

He adds that the team had to use heavy temporary works, as they could only disturb 5 per cent of the footprint of the building with its foundations.

To build the basement, the team had to dig through 9 m of solid sandstone, all on a tight site, with 60 buses an hour passing within metres of the works at the city’s bus station.

A smaller studio theatre sits directly above a new 800-seat proscenium theatre in the new building, continuing the box-within-a-box theme from the old section. The studio is supported by 20 m-long, 10-tonne beams, which sit above the theatre, that were so large they had to be manufactured by a bridge deck company.

Specialist theatre services

In the main theatre, consultant Charcoal Blue has helped to design a complex space with a variety of services to accommodate a huge range of performance needs, including a retractable stage that can bring performers much closer to the audience.

As many as 300 seats can be removed and the stage brought forwards for more intimate performances. Once operational, this will be the first theatre of this type in the UK.

All of this specialist equipment has needed meticulous planning from the service side of the project. “You can see from the amount of services and conduits on display how critical NG Bailey is to this process,” Mr White says.

Kier Chester Theatre 4

Kier Chester Theatre 4

The existing Odeon building is Grade II listed

Mr Simms says that use of Level 2 BIM on the project was “absolutely fundamental” to getting the services right. “Without the BIM model, all of this would’ve been impossible,” he says. “The magnitude of lighting equipment, AV equipment, and the controls required, too – the specialist equipment in this building is second-to-none.”

All of the M&E works and services have had to have incredibly fine acoustic tolerances due to the different needs of the theatre’s potential performers.

“Without the BIM model, all of this would’ve been impossible”

Ian Simms, NG Bailey

There is also a huge array of services situated in the building’s fly tower, a large open box area above the stage from where scenery for a production is flown or supported, with cables and ropes running up and down the walls. A grid above allows staff to set up scenery from above the stage without being seen by the audience.

Mr White says the sheer number of different services the theatre has needed has been a huge challenge, but will help the Storyhouse become a state-of-the-art theatre once complete. “I don’t think you even get this many services in a hospital,” he says.

The nature of the fly tower means that many of the complex services, installed at height and managed carefully by NG Bailey, won’t be seen by any audience member.

In fact, many of the building’s eventual patrons will never know the extent of the technical work and meticulous management that has gone into creating Storyhouse.

All of these details will underpin a building that is at once thoroughly modern yet steeped in heritage, and that is on course to form a flagship cultural space for not just the North-west but the whole of the UK.

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