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Gold winner

Employer: Willmott Dixon Construction

Project: Darlington Hippodrome and Theatre Hullabaloo

Sean McNicholas needed all his wits to deliver this sumptuous theatre refurbishment and auditorium expansion.

True to restoration form, missing foundations and forgotten structures were repeatedly encountered during the works. The critical path changed trajectory 15 times on the project. Sean’s herculean efforts delivered the theatre on time and defect-free. His performance has since landed him and his team another project: the £15m refurbishment of the Globe Theatre in nearby Stockton-on-Tees.

Calm, logical and hard to fluster, Sean McNicholas nevertheless needed all his wits about him to deliver this sumptuous theatre refurbishment and auditorium expansion on time and defect-free.

Adding seats to the auditorium (the key element in making the theatre commercially viable) came with a large helping of risk. The client wanted the shortest possible closure time – live shows continued until the day before the contract started, and the panto season (with its £50,000 takings a day) was to open the day following completion. The project was £300,000 over budget at the design stage. And given this was a building that had been changed and added to piecemeal over the decades since 1907 with little in the way of documentation, there was simply no knowing what construction horrors might turn up during the course of the works.

True to form, Sean encountered missing foundations and forgotten structures aplenty. Programme success ultimately came from his ability to react fast and sure-footedly to a constantly evolving critical path. Behind every corner was a lurking problem that demanded repeated activity resequencing. The critical path changed its trajectory 15 times during the works. Some 14 months into the programme, the deadline was even brought forward a week to accommodate an additional show.

Value engineering was an essential. Sean achieved budget by reappraising the back of house facilities while maintaining sumptuous-quality finishes for front of house, such as gold leaf decoration for the balcony fronts. Backstage corridors had their planned ceilings removed and their walls built as fair-faced blockwork without plastering.

But the big technical task was fitting more seats (that were also wider, and offered more legroom and a clear line of sight) in the auditorium, without increasing the overall size of the space. Sean managed it by retiering the auditorium on an improved gradient and inserting a steel cantilevered structure to replace two 400mm-thick concrete walls that supported the royal boxes.

Sean’s herculean efforts delivered the project defect-free to the new one-week-early timeline. His performance and that of the construction team has since landed another project: the £15m refurbishment of the Globe Theatre in nearby Stockton-on-Tees, which includes expanding its 2,500-seat capacity to 3,000.