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Employer: Willmott Dixon Construction

Project: Alexandra Palace Theatre, London

Stuffed full of unhappy surprises, Anthony Dowling’s refurbishment of this listed theatre was all about cleverly dodging what looked like a series of inescapable deadly bullets.

The start could hardly have been more inauspicious, with the discovery during the enabling works of far more extensive asbestos than originally supposed. Sprayed on to act as sound as well as fire insulation in the former BBC recording studios, it had spread to neighbouring areas so virulently that the 22-week asbestos strip-out extended to almost a year.

Determined to keep the project’s head above water, Tony spent the time improving buildability for the main works. He also transferred works from the main contract into the enabling package to optimise resources already on site and to further explore some of the unknown elements. The latter proved a particularly valuable move when some of the foundations of the original Alexandra Palace, which burnt down 16 days after it opened, were uncovered, requiring an archaeological investigation and a redesign of the floor support structure.

An even bigger headache was a budget entirely insufficient to cover all the client’s aspirations. Postponing the creation of a BBC museum in part of the building saved £4m, but the rest came from Tony’s vigorous and shrewd value engineering.

Among his massive contributions was the rejection of a costly temporary roof (the building’s walls subsequently turned out to have no foundations and so could not have supported one anyway). Tony’s alternative of installing a sacrificial single-ply membrane over the original felt provided a dry environment for carrying out repairs below. Likewise, he replaced the unaffordable 1,900sqm of brick paving for the east court with polished concrete.

And when several of the roof trusses were found to be so rotten that you could push your hand into them at their ends, he mitigated the delay and project impact that propping the trusses would have caused by installing the permanent structural steelwork already designed for the timber node points. He then had the rest of the steels manufactured and installed, allowed critical activities inside the building to continue.

He even saved money while providing a site exemplar of the ‘arrested decay’ design theme in the refurbishment of a derelict building in the grounds for use as site offices and welfare facilities. It was shown to all operatives during the quality induction as a demonstration of the design thrust and the quality of finish expected – and also diverted budget from site cabins to refurbishment works instead.