Row over Hamburg concert hall goes to court

11 November 2010

One of the most ambitious projects on site in Europe ended up in court last month, as the client for the much-delayed and over-budget concert hall in Hamburg launched legal action against contractor Hochtief for alleged mismanagement, writes Michael Willoughby.

Costs escalated on Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall from €204m to more than €500m and it has been delayed by more than a year | Iain Masterton/Alamy

ReGe Hamburg, the agency that plans and manages capital projects in the city,  is seeking a ruling from the county court that the contractor is responsible for some of the delays and cost-overruns which have dogged the vast Elbphilharmonie cultural project.

Hamburg wanted its very own cultural icon and tourist magnet, and Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron certainly delivered one. The glass-walled concert hall sits on top of a red brick warehouse by the Elbe River, first built in 1875 then rebuilt in the 1960s. The complex includes a 2,200-seat grand concert hall, a multi-purpose hall with 660 seats, a hotel and restaurants.

In 2005, according to the Wall Street Journal, Hamburg’s pre-design feasibility study costed the project at €204m, of which local taxpayers would pay €95m.

But costs rose when construction started in 2007, and contractor Hochtief renegotiated the contract in 2008 for €503m, leaving Hamburg with a bill of €323m. The final cost is likely to rise by at least another €40m.

But the trigger for legal action seems to be Hochtief’s acknowledgment that the building will now not be finished in time for the 2012-13 concert season, which is already a year after the originally-planned completion date.

ReGe Hamburg spokesperson, Nina Siepmann, said ReGe Hamburg was taking legal action to secure an admission from Hochtief that it was their fault the original 2011-12 deadline had been missed, to get it to stick to a strict project management programme dictated by the client and to maintain the quality of the build in the face of time pressure.

“We have already cancelled the summer 2012 opening ceremony,” she said. “We want them to admit they messed it up themselves. It’s more about the money than the date.”

The explanations for the delays and overruns sound familiar. Hamburg’s cost planners apparently underestimated certain technical elements, such as an acoustic skin for the concert hall, where costs rose from €3.5m to €15m.

But some problems apparently lie with construction errors, particularly in the concert hall itself, where Hochtief acknowledges that springs supporting its “box within a box” were installed incorrectly and will have to be replaced.

Hochtief has claimed that Herzog & de Meuron repeatedly changed the designs and caused delays by turning in plans late. However, the architect has denied this, saying that some cost increases are in line with changing technical requirements, but others were unjustified.

Hochtief and Herzog & de Meuron did not return CM’s calls or emails.

Hochtief’s website presents the Elbphilharmonie project as a showcase for its ViCon system of “Virtual construction”. It says: “If a target time schedule and an actual time schedule are linked with a CAD model, deviations between planned and actual construction operations become apparent. In this way, the 4D model can be used to document construction progress and manage and monitor work done. In addition, the 4D model contains important information for logistics planning.”

Calling the trial a perfectly normal part of the construction process, ReGe’s Siepmann added: “It’s the building that the city deserves. It will put Hamburg on the map and people will have forgotten about all this soon after it has been completed.”

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