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Willmott revives Alexandra Palace's forgotten wing

Willmott Dixon is revamping a long-neglected section of the Victorian icon that staged the BBC’s first high-definition broadcast 80 years ago.

Client: Alexandra Park and Palace
Contract value: £25m
Contract type: JCT Design and build
Region: London
Main contractor: Willmott Dixon
Architect: Fielden Clegg Bradley
Start date: January 2016
Completion date: June 2018

Alexandra Palace has a special place in the hearts of north Londoners.

Perched on the top of a hill overlooking some of London’s leafiest suburbs, the Victorian ‘Palace of the People’ has put up with much in the 140 years or so since it first opened.

Gutted twice by fire, it has risen from the ashes to become a highly successful concert and exhibition venue as well as a landmark in the history of modern media.

In 1936, it was from this building, affectionately known as Ally Pally, that the BBC made history by delivering the world’s first regular high-definition public television broadcast from its studios.

Now, 80 years after that first broadcast, Willmott Dixon is busy on the first stages of a refurbishment project that aims to turn those historic studios into a museum and revamp the whole of the East Wing, including the cavernous glass-roofed East Court and the beautiful yet forgotten Victorian Theatre.

Local interest

Operations manager Simon Wilson and construction manager Tony Dowling head up Willmott Dixon’s onsite team and are well aware of the local interest in their important work to safeguard the building’s future.

“You can’t help but be aware of the interest in the work we are carrying out here,” Mr Wilson says. “Everybody who comes to work on the scheme is fully engaged in it and has real interest in working on its restoration. It offers a completely new experience to most schemes.”

The Grade II-listed building throws up a range of challenges to the project team. The East Court will see its glass roof refurbished and its arches, blocked up over the years to create smaller spaces, reopened to enable views along the full width of the building.

Open Doors Week 2017

Willmott Dixon is throwing open the Alexandra Palace site as part of Open Doors week 27 March to 1 April. To find out more, and arrange a site visit, go to: opendoors.construction

The vast floor slab is being ripped up and readied for the installation of an underfloor heating system. This will offer enough heat to avoid any potential future snow-loading problems on the glass roof. It will be finished off with hundreds of thousands of 50 mm x 200 mm handmade Belgian bricks laid in a herringbone fashion across the whole ground-floor slab of the East Court.

“In the East Court the work is all about volume,” Mr Dowling explains, adding that the whole slab is being dug with a further 500 mm of excavation below it. “The new slab is 200 mm thick, but we need to insulate and be sure that we have enough room to relocate services.”

Willmott Dixon Alexandra Palace Inside Ally Pally 2

Willmott Dixon Alexandra Palace Inside Ally Pally 2

Over in the BBC studios, the work is a little more intricate. In contrast to the large open-plan TV studios with smooth concrete floors that are commonplace today, these are much smaller with flexible wooden flooring that looks like it must have struggled under the weight of early TV cameras.

Riddled with asbestos

This section of the building is a rabbit warren of interconnecting corridors with former offices, dressing rooms and a bar in addition to the studios themselves. It is also riddled with asbestos.

“The studios are double height,” Mr Dowling says. “Back in the days when they were being actively used, asbestos was the ‘wonder material’. Here it has been sprayed everywhere, as fire protection and sound insulation. We have found far more than we thought we would.

“The bulk of it was placed as a spray-on insulation over the walls, but we found that this spray had also migrated into the loft space. It has been a very complicated asbestos strip.”

“They are some of the largest sash windows in London”

Tony Dowling, Willmott Dixon

So complicated in fact that in places the strip has evolved into a management plan rather than removal. The presence of asbestos is being carefully logged and noted before being covered, ready for future occupants.

The studios front onto Alexandra Palace’s southern façade. This originally featured an arched colonnade effect along the elevation with sash windows sat a metre or so deep into the arches.

To gain more floor space in the studios, these colonnade arches had been bricked up flush to the outer face of the elevation, creating a metre or so of extra floor space behind those bricks.

As part of the work, these arches will be broken out and the façade restored. Where the enormous original arched sash windows – some as large as 5 m – are still in position, the team will refurbish and replace as necessary.

From BBC dump to 1,300-seat venue

While the BBC Studios and the East Court refurbishments are extremely intricate, it is undoubtedly the work being carried out on the Victorian Theatre that draws the eye.

Here the work is slower paced and more painstaking. The Willmott Dixon team is going through the initial stages of revamping the theatre – forgotten and used as a storage space for sets from the BBC studios for 80 years – into an adaptable performance space capable of seating audiences of 1,300 as well as smaller, more intimate productions.

The theatre, closed and unheated for many years, has suffered under the cold and damp conditions and now the project team has its work cut out to help stabilise that decline.

In a move that will help save the plasterwork, including the theatre’s crowning glory of its beautifully ornate ceiling, the team is stripping out the existing ground floor and replacing it with a new slab sitting on block sleeper walls.

The walls and the air space beneath the slab will create a plenum space encouraging proper air circulation around the huge room. These sleeper walls are a single block thick and run the length of the auditorium at 2.5 m centres and support its new composite metal deck floor slab.

“There is a 2 m void being created beneath the auditorium,” Mr Dowling explains. “We have removed the existing timber floor that was supported on brick arched sleeper walls, which weren’t structurally sound. Some of these have been removed, but we have some left in situ on the recommendation of the heritage officer,” he adds.

A new steel frame supporting the existing balconies and upper tier has been installed with 200 mm-square I-section columns onto reinforced concrete pads foundations.

“The existing plasterwork will also be treated. What we are looking at is a programme of work aimed at arresting the decay rather than complete refurbishment,” Mr Wilson says.

“They are some of the largest sash windows in London,” Mr Dowling says. “Some are 5 m high and all have gone through a thorough assessment. Some are too far gone to be saved, but others are not bad considering they have been there for almost 150 years. They will be refurbished. It is probably a 50:50 split between replacement and refurbishment.”

Willmott Dixon Alexandra Palace BBC vintage camera mid

Willmott Dixon Alexandra Palace BBC vintage camera mid

An example of one of the BBC’s vintage cameras based on the site.

At the north-east corner of the building, the team is going through the work that will safeguard the future of the Victorian Theatre (see box), which was, until recently, used as a storeroom for scenery from the BBC studios.

Work will stabilise the deteriorating ornate plasterwork throughout the theatre, saving the stunning ceiling from collapse as well as providing a new floor across the ground floor. Within the tower that overlooks the Palace’s boating lake, there will also be a new bar to provide refreshments to thirsty theatregoers.

“Everybody who comes to work on the scheme is fully engaged in it. It offers a completely new experience to most schemes”

Simon Wilson, Willmott Dixon

Despite boasting BIM Level 2 certification throughout the company, the Willmott Dixon team has not used it on the Alexandra Palace project beyond visually modelling the scheme.

“There just wasn’t the fit on any part of the project really,” Mr Wilson says. “We felt it was too far down the road to be of much benefit beyond providing a model for the client and it was difficult to provide that. We have modelled the theatre – just to give the client and contractors a better understanding of the new steelwork beneath the balconies and how it fits into the existing.”

There is a long-held dream to eventually see the whole of the Alexandra Palace building refurbished and restored to a semblance of its former glory. Willmott Dixon’s work on the East Wing makes a determined start.

Labour of love

The totally different and unusual aspects of the East Wing refurb have meant the Willmott Dixon team has had to look beyond its usual supply chain for specialist contractors.

What the team has noticed, however, is that the specialists brought on board the scheme have totally bought into it.

“We have managed to pull some of our supply chain over, but the work is so completely different here,” Mr Dowling says. “There are not many opportunities for some of these skilled craftsmen to work on these sorts of schemes. For some of our specialists, this may be the only project they are involved in for the year.

“We have found there is a different commitment and mindset. There is an emotional attachment to this project. That goes for our own staff too.”

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