Restoring the Old Vic – Bristol fashion

9 January 2018 | By Will Mann

King Street showing Coopers Hall and the new theatre entrance to the side (Haworth Tompkins)

The second phase of the Bristol Old Vic theatre redevelopment is a delicate job for contractor Gilbert-Ash – restoring and reconfiguring the Grade I-listed Georgian buildings and constructing an adjoining modern reception. Will Mann reports.

The Bristol Old Vic is the longest continuously running theatre in the UK. Located on King Street in the city’s historic centre, the complex includes Coopers Hall, which dates back to 1754, and the Theatre Royal, built in 1766. Both buildings are Grade I listed.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre redevelopment – phase 2

Client Bristol Old Vic Trust
Main contractor Gilbert-Ash
Architect Haworth Tompkins
Building services engineer Max Fordham
Structural engineer Momentum Engineering
Value £9.3m
Programme October 2016- summer 2018
Contract Design and build (two stage)

A decade ago, Bristol Old Vic Trust began the first of a two-phase redevelopment of the site, with Haworth Tompkins as lead architect. Phase 1, refurbishment of the auditorium, was completed in 2012.

The £9.3m second phase started in 2016, with the appointment of heritage specialist Gilbert-Ash as main contractor, and involves restoring heritage elements of the listed buildings, construction of a new front-of-house space, plus bars and function spaces to provide the theatre company with additional revenue streams. 

“It is a complex and intricate project, working with structures dating back to the Georgian era, and we have to ensure the theatre’s day-to-day business can continue uninterrupted throughout the programme,” explains Raymond Gilroy, construction director at the Belfast-headquartered contractor.

The project was procured through a two-stage tender. Gilbert-Ash was appointed in May 2016 and over the next four and a half months worked with Haworth Tompkins and specialist suppliers to bring the design from RIBA Stage D to completion and achieve financial close. The firm’s design and build contract started in October 2016.

The phase 2 project includes demolition of offices, a 1970s studio theatre and entrance building to the west of Coopers Hall, plus some structures to the rear. The three-storey front-of-house space with bar and cafe will front King Street and link through to the Theatre Royal behind and to Coopers Hall.

Above: Temporary works used to support one of the openings created in Coopers Hall. Below: The head of one of the four Corinthian columns on the facade of Coopers Hall, which are being renovated

Coopers Hall, which had previously served as a foyer and ticket office, is being restored and reconfigured, with the original banqueting hall reinstated on the first floor. A new studio theatre is being fitted at basement and ground floor levels, seating up to 150 people. 

Aesthetically, the new timber-framed and structurally glazed entrance will reveal the theatre’s 18th century walls to the street, while a glulaminated timber “diagrid” roof follows the geometries of the Georgian buildings.

Gilbert-Ash’s first major challenge was to strip the 20th century structures which abut Coopers Hall and the theatre right back to the original 17th century buildings. “This was a delicate operation,” says Gilroy. “The demolition and reconfiguration methodology had to be verified during the second stage of the tender process and approved by Historic England and Bristol City Council, the local listed building authority.”

An extensive temporary works design had to be developed, as four different buildings needed to be retained during the deconstruction works: the interfaces with Coopers Hall, the theatre, and two neighbouring buildings.

“The temporary works design also had to ensure there was no detrimental impact on the listed elements,” says Gilroy. “Some sections of the original walls had to be removed for connections to the new extension. The temporary props to support these openings had to be specially designed and manufactured to ensure no damage was caused to the original masonry.”

Some of the Georgian walls are 1m thick, and it was difficult for Gilbert-Ash to know how the stonework would respond when cut into. Because of this uncertainty, at this time the contractor met with the architects twice a week to review any “unknowns” encountered.

“It turned out there were some old voids and chimney flues, which were likely infilled in the 1970s,” explains Gilroy. “After discovering this, the architect revised the structural steel design of the foyer stairs, so that the exposed masonry of these infills would be visible in the main foyer, along with a chimney structure adjacent to King Street which predates Coopers Hall. We will secure any loose masonry with a light-touch approach.

Above: The bi-folding perforated metal shutters at first and second floor level above the entrance. Below: Glulaminated timber-framed interior of the front-of-house area (Haworth Tompkins)

“The architect’s plan was always to retain the walls of the auditorium and Coopers Hall ‘as found’, revealing any scars and showing the story of the various changes to the buildings, in the 1880s, the 1940s and the 1970s.”

The facade of Coopers Hall is also being renovated, including the four Corinthian pillars and its frieze sculptures. Decorative cornices and stone surrounds to the windows have been restored, though not replaced. 

“The client opted for minimal reinstatement, and wanted to work with the original stone, putting in protective measures – such as bird protection netting – to minimise future deterioration,” says Gilroy. “The stonemasons were restricted to cleaning and conservation techniques using only handheld tools, and local replacement of damaged masonry with ‘like for like’ Bath stone.” 

The existing roof was stripped back so that the fabric below the tiles could be replaced with a Tyvek membrane and new insulation installed. Original tiles were retained where possible with reclaimed tiles fitted in some areas.

As with all conservation projects, specialist materials have been used widely, such as a lime mortar mix and reclaimed bricks for the original walls. “All heritage trades were jointly appointed with the client,” says Gilroy.

The envelope programme ran from June to October 2017 to reduce weather risk, though Gilbert-Ash took the precaution of using a temporary roof canopy, with its roofing contractor working on a small zone at a time.

The reconfiguration of the Coopers Hall interior will see the top floor stripped back, with finishes sympathetic to the original construction installed. This will be a communal social space, reflecting the hall’s original role.

The studio is being created by using the existing basement, which sits 2.5 m below ground level, and removing the old ground floor. The original stone walls are being left “as found” here as well.

The “diagrid” roof structure over the front of house area

The front-of-house space sits on a tight footprint 20m wide by 15m deep. Construction of the piled foundations was challenging, involving 10 mini piles, 200mm diameter, driven to a depth of 18m under the lift pit.

“This meant breaking into the basement slab and using the smallest piling rig possible,” explains Gilroy. “The rig weighed under 2.5 tonnes and could fit through a standard door opening and be transported down stairs. The piling works also had to be monitored by our archaeology team as the lift pit lies on the line of the old city wall (no archaeological remains were found).”

The superstructure is formed from a glulaminated timber frame, with metal balustrading and two bespoke sculptural metal staircases. The staircases will meet entrances to the old theatre and mezzanine floor spaces. 

“The palette of finishes that the client and architect has agreed required extensive sampling, while also meeting the commercial challenges of the project,” says Gilroy. “Use of sawn oak lath was approved by planners and client teams following a five-month review process.”   

The unusual facade of the new entrance will feature bi-folding perforated metal shutters.

Watch a time lapse video of the project

The services installation included 50m of services trenches, built during the foundations phase, some linked into existing 1970s trenches. Four new vertical risers come out of those trenches and up through the new extension, and then feed into Coopers Hall and the front-of-house space. 

The main roof plant area, serving the majority of the new complex, is behind Coopers Hall above new staff offices. Most of the Coopers Hall services and plant are within the new studio space, with other M&E plant in the old theatre. 

“The studio theatre is naturally ventilated via a plenum at lower ground floor below the main foyer,” adds Gilroy. 

As required by Gilbert-Ash’s contract, the Bristol Old Vic theatre company has remained operational throughout. This was helped by the creation of a new temporary entrance at the back of the theatre, which turned the original studio into a bar and foyer. “We planned every last detail during the second stage tender period, and continue to liaise with the client at weekly catch-up meetings to ensure the work does not impact on their operations,” says Gilroy.

The project is due to complete in summer 2018, and is the latest in Gilbert-Ash’s sizeable arts and heritage portfolio, which also includes Liverpool’s Stirling Prize-winning Everyman Theatre, the National Army Museum and Battersea Arts Centre.

Gilroy puts the contractor’s strong record in the sector down to “experience, knowing the specialist heritage craft trades, and relationships with structural engineers with critical knowledge of carrying out reconfiguration works in listed buildings”.

He adds: “The project team at Bristol Old Vic was highly collaborative, which is a feature of heritage projects. There is a huge amount of respect, with each work package showing respect for the next trade coming in. World-renowned architects will come to site and be happy to work with and learn from the craft trades.”

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