Faithful+Gould Overcomes Myriad of Challenges to Successfully Refurbish Live Theatre

Dale Potts
Described by Faithful+Gould, as 'one of the most challenging projects we have ever worked on', the significant refurbishment and extension works to one of Newcastle’s most renowned theatre companies, Live Theatre, has become folklore like in some circles.

The Newcastle office of international project management and cost consultants, Faithful+Gould, was brought on board for this £5.5 million project early in 2003 to provide quantity surveying, project management and health and safety services on what its team thought was going to be a relatively clear-cut scheme.

Already playing a major role on the adjoining £55 million mixed use Trinity Gardens complex which includes high quality office space, a multi-storey car park, hotel extension and numerous retail outlets, Faithful+Gould was keen to use its local talent to be involved in yet another significant regeneration project effecting a massive change on a previously neglected quarter of Newcastle city centre.

Live Theatre has been situated at Broad Chare on Newcastle’s Quayside since the early 1980s. During this time it has established itself as one of the leading new writing theatre companies in the country encouraging indigenous talent.

The Theatre itself is located in a former 19th century warehouse and almshouse patchwork of buildings at numbers 25 to 27 Broad Chare and Trinity Chare, which are Grade 1 and Grade 2 Listed. It is also situated within a Conservation Area, previously the epicentre of medieval Newcastle.

Initially brought on board to a £1 million project to expand the Theatre to space into the adjoining Trinity House, it became clear to Live Theatre’s management team that they could take advantage of the once in a lifetime opportunity funding streams available for regeneration and conservation projects like theirs. This decision proved pivotal and made the project far larger and more complex than previously envisaged and would encompass:

  • Maximum access for the widest number of potential users with a clearly identified vertical access to each floor
  • The upgrading and reconfiguration of the auditorium and seating to improve the staging of performances
  • Improved access to the rear of the stage, backstage and dressing rooms
  • Creation of a cellar and restaurant storage space in the basement, a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, office space on the first and second floors as well as rehearsal space, a green room, writer’s room and ancillary accommodation on the third and fourth floors
  • Upgrading the box office and associated front of house facilities

A decision was taken to break the project down into three phases to accommodate the requirements and timings of the various funding streams.

A complete review of the project was also undertaken with the archaeology officer and archaeological consultants, Tyne and Wear Museum, with a view to establishing a joint approach, agreed methodology and programme for exposing and monitoring existing structures or artefacts.

Early on in the projects’ life, the design team began consultation with the historic buildings officer which proved to be especially fruitful. Undertaking site visits with the officer to consult on the projects’ various planning and listed building applications was a vital part in them being granted as the constructive two-way dialogue between the parties ensured that any potential flaws with the applications were spotted and dealt with before submission.

Mike Hope, who was part of the Faithful+Gould project management team, says:

“The early liaison and consultation with the historic buildings officer was particularly positive from our point of view as when it came down to submitting the applications we were confident that all bases were covered and that they would be approved, hopefully in the shortest period of time possible.”

Although the issues with planning meant set-backs to the project team, with both developments essentially side-by-side on a tight access point on Newcastle’s Quayside one benefit was that the adjoining Trinity Gardens scheme was able to be completed before site access was required by Live Theatre’s contractor.

One other major challenge that Faithful+Gould had to contend with was that Live Theatre would be operational right up to the commencement of building works. Ideally its team would have liked to undertaken full investigation and intrusive surveys before work started on site but limitations were imposed on the team as the fabric of the building couldn’t be disturbed whilst productions were ongoing. Therefore, Faithful+Gould had to implement a risk management strategy to overcome this problem.

Mike continued:

“In an ideal world, we would have undertaken a much greater amount of intrusive investigation works prior to the completion of detailed design which would possibly have averted some late modifications in phases 2 and 3 that did inevitably delay our schedule. As it was, Live’s programme of events did not allow this as in most cases any intrusive work had to be made good the same day.”

In the process of changing the floor level of what was to become ‘The Street’, which acts as the main thoroughfare of the development, Phase 1 threw up a massive challenge to Faithful+Gould’s team.

Whilst they were undertaking a site visit, the stability of a skin of brick at ground floor at the party wall between numbers 27 and 29 Broad Chare was questioned. The building surveys had suggested that it was simply the local thickening of the party wall. Further surveys called into question the capability of the existing structure to support proposed and approved insertions and adaptions.

Faithful+Gould discovered the reason for the instability was a sudden release of grain stored within a cavity, which wasn’t thought to exist, that had created lateral pressure at mid height of the wall, causing outward movement of the wall skin. The wall construction, thought to be solid, was revealed to actually be two walls, inadequately tied together, with a cavity of varying thickness between them.

This issue signalled the start of a challenging time for the development. Having relied on the wall for support, steel work had to be brought down from roof level through the building to solid ground within the basement.

It was then that contractor Stephen Easten went into receivership. A wholly unexpected event, this threw the project into a state of uncertainty, which was thankfully short lived when The Esh Group took over the ailing company and re-launched it as Stephen Easten Building Ltd. The contract was then novated.

Live Theatre's exterior signage

Mike says:

“Although it did seem like a massive set back, we were fortunate that the new contractor came on board on the same terms and conditions as previously agreed and there was also consistency in project personnel, the programme sub-contractors and contract sum.”

Due to ongoing and protracted negotiations with the funders, a decision was taken to undertake work on Phases 2 and 3 simultaneously, which affected Live Theatre’s ability and wish to occupy and operate as much as possible during this time.

Enabling works for phase 2 had been completed to 29 Broad Chare and its refurbishment was subsequently carried out to provide an additional rehearsal space, restaurant shell and central atrium. Offices, which were formerly located in the draughty old arms houses, have now been transformed for staff into much more flexible and modern space with writers’ rooms set off the main floor area.

Phase 3 saw the refurbishment of the almshouses to provide more dressing room space, along with radical alteration of the theatre space to include the installation of a new curved steel framed mezzanine balcony.

To improve sight lines from the new seating the existing ground floor had to be lowered by 600mm. Having anticipated that the floor would have to be underpinned the whole way round the auditorium, in the end only a small part of the wall, located within the perimeter of the auditorium, received such attention.

Sustainability was a key theme for this project from the beginning. Whilst the existing space has been adapted to accommodate the new design and uses, the loss of the original fabric of the building was been minimal. Less than ten per cent new timber was used in the construction as the existing Baltic pine beams were lifted and retained to accommodate safe headroom. Existing cast iron columns were also retained and fire protected. Existing timber floors, including boards and joints, were additionally over-clad for fire protection and acoustic insulation.

During the project’s life, Live Theatre was very keen to not just comply but exceed DDA requirements. Many hours of planning and a significant degree of finance was dedicated to features for the disabled theatre-goer, which included, amongst other things, height adjustable basins and induction loops for the hard of hearing.

Martin Round, Director of Faithful+Gould’s Newcastle office, said:

“The works have added significant value to both the theatre and the surrounding area and it is testimony to the high regard our services are placed in that we have played a central role on two of the flagship regeneration projects for Newcastle’s Quayside.

“Having personally worked on Live Theatre from inception through to completion it was a proud moment when we handed such a transformed and revitalised building back to our client. Although many aspects of the project preserved and enhanced the heritage aspects of the former theatre and disused warehouses, they now have a flexible and highly commercial space to take them forward.

“The delivery of multi faceted projects of this scale and complexity against a rigorous construction timetable obviously requires a great deal of planning and thorough attention to detail. This has been one of the most complex schemes we have worked on, given the many legal, technical and commercial issues it threw up during its lifespan.

“The relationship between the whole project team greatly contributed to the success of a very challenging project. Faithful+Gould, Waring and Netts and WSP have all worked together very well before and for the duration of the project, which was far longer than any of us had envisaged, I think it is testimony to our excellent communication and planning that we reached the end of such a complicated and challenging scheme so successfully.”

Live Theatre now accommodates a total of 185 seats, 35 more than the original building. It currently boasts the largest free education and outreach programme in the city and it has been responsible for the development of feature films including Billy Elliot.

Jim Beirne, Live Theatre’s manager, said:

“The unforeseen challenges and set backs experienced on the project made ours a particularly challenging and demanding undertaking for Faithful+Gould’s team. However, drawing upon its highly capable staff, all obstacles out in our way were overcome quickly, with skill and determination not to let them impact any more on the timescale and budget than possible.

“Our new facilities extend over five floors, with all areas within the Theatre being accessed via a central glazed ‘hub’ that rises up through the building to roof level. The former cellars have been adapted for use as part of the restaurant space, and the first floor has been adapted for use as offices with a rehearsal room on the second floor and a writers’ room situated in the attic. It is a space that we could only have dreamed of.”