The show must go on

Equals Consulting

By Tony Wilson

February 2020

Major projects often unfold while it’s business as usual for the client. This can cause headaches – literally – for everyone involved. Equals Director Tony Wilson MBE suggests six steps to working in a live environment in the arts and culture sector so that contractors and clients can work side by side and all do their jobs well.


The builders are in

If a client chooses or is required to remain open as usual during a construction project, inevitably, that project is going to have an impact on their day to day life. Not only is it inconvenient, but if badly managed, the disruption can cause severe commercial as well as reputational damage. In the arts and culture sector, with large public audiences or collections of priceless artefacts to contend with, the challenges can seem overwhelming. To find ways to tackle them, it’s important to break down exactly what the effects of the project will be. There are four main ways in which a project impacts the daily life of a client:

Noise – a big problem in a theatre because performances and rehearsals cannot be disrupted. The artists and audiences should experience productions as they would if the construction were not taking place.

Dust – all projects cause dust – it’s disruptive in any environment and unacceptable in areas open to the public. It can also cause hazards for performers.

Vibrations – potentially catastrophic in a museum setting where priceless artefacts may be situated in adjacent spaces to a site, maybe just metres away from active areas.

Access – this is a two-sided challenge. When construction-related traffic is sharing access points with the client’s operations – such as the delivery of scenery in a theatre – extreme attention to detail in setting up processes and timetables is required. Secondly, control of the site may have to be transferred between the client and the contractor on a regular basis if the client’s use of the space needs to be maintained. Handovers and safety concerns need to be expertly managed.


Six ways to soften the blow

There are lots of ways to mitigate the impact of a major construction project on a business or institution. What links them together is the need to think about the detail proactively, and then be vigilant in sticking to the commitments and arrangements that are settled upon.


1 Scheduling and routines

This is central to any programme, but even more so when working around occupants of a building. There are many questions that need clear answers. When can the most unavoidably disruptive parts of the build take place? Is there a period where more disruption would be acceptable or weeks when it most definitely isn’t? Is there an area that will be handed back to the client for public use on a regular basis? How will that work in terms of the daily routine for both the contractors, the occupants and the public?

2 Boundaries

Be ambitious and be fussy when deciding – with the client of course – what is acceptable in terms of what they can put up with for the duration of the project. This will be a very tailored process according to the specific needs and operational set up of the client, so it requires an enthusiastic commitment to getting to know the client and their business extremely well. There might be zero tolerance for noise at certain times of the day, or specific areas where vibrations are particularly dangerous. No detail is too small!

3 Staying flexible

In many cases, a project in a live environment will require frequent handovers where a space needs to stay in use during its transformation, as was the case in our case study – the Open Up project at the Royal Opera House. The project needs to allow room for that flexibility of the space – as well as suitable processes for the routine of the handovers. Of course it also requires strong collaboration between all involved to make frequent handovers work effectively.

4 Designing the programme

Armed with knowledge of the business and what is and isn’t acceptable, every detail of the programme needs to be examined to ensure that the project works for the client. Every detail matters – the selection of tools, materials, processes – will they minimise the noise, dust or vibrations satisfactorily? How will wayfinding and signage be designed to make it easy for the building’s inhabitants or visitors to carry on as normal?

5 Monitoring

Sticking to your commitments is as important as making them. But there needs to be a concrete way to do that built into the plan. It’s crucial to find ways of accurately measuring noise, dust or vibrations so that when agreed limits are exceeded, action can be taken, according to pre-arranged procedures.

6 Contractor buy-in

These concerns are not just a burden for the project manager. Contractors have to be invested in reducing disruption for the client too, and success is closely tied to a common understanding of the client’s needs. In theatres or galleries, consider arranging tours or viewings for the construction team to communicate the reasons for the special measures. Also remember to make sure the contract allows room to prioritise the restrictions – if a contractor is overly concerned about strict or unrealistic deadlines for example, attention to detail on the measures in place for working alongside the client might slip.

Case Study
Bravo! – Royal Opera House Renovations, Open Up

A landmark project in the history of one the United Kingdom’s most valuable cultural institutions, Open Up was the Royal Opera House’s (ROH) recent scheme to make opera and ballet more accessible to all. It included the transformation of their beautiful home into a vibrant, inclusive London destination.

The extensive refurbishment was split into several projects which ran concurrently. During these major structural renovations, the ROH remained open to the public, with no alterations to or impact on its schedule of performances.

It was essential to maintain the overall visitor experience, which impacted decisions every day. One aspect of this was arranging works on the amphitheatre level, where the bar was being renovated, so that a section of site could be tidied, cordoned off and handed back to the ROH staff every evening to be used as a pristine space for guests at the evening performance.


It’s all in the detail

Working in a live environment changes the shape of a project. The familiar juggling act of timing, quality and cost is present, but running through all of it is the need to minimise the impact of the works on every day life. In the arts and culture sector, this can be a seemingly impossible challenge because of the public regularly enjoying the spaces in large numbers. The solution is a disciplined, proactive approach to project management, where expectations are clear and high, and solid processes are in place so they can be adhered to with ease.


Case Study
Good Vibrations – British Museum, World Conservation and Exhibition Centre

At the iconic British Museum, the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) provided 17,000m² of facilities and refurbishment of parts of the Grade I listed buildings. With 60% of the new structure being underground, it involved massive excavations in very close proximity to the existing structure. Galleries containing unique objects situated just metres away from the site remained open, creating a strong risk of damage from vibrations.

Equals devised an approach for minimising vibrations. Working with a specialist contractor, maximum vibration levels were identified, and then a range of construction tools and techniques were rigorously tested to establish what could be used and what could not. The maximum levels were also written into the contract. During the works, vibrations were constantly monitored and when the agreed levels were exceeded, text alerts were automatically sent with a traffic light warning system to key team members so that works could be paused if necessary for investigation.

There were also private tours of the collection of the British Museum organised for the contractor’s team – in order to foster a feeling of ownership and involvement with the artefacts whose home they were working to enhance.