It had by no means reached the condition of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake in Great Expectations, but St John’s College’s New Court – so flamboyant a structure it has earned the nickname of the Wedding Cake – had undoubtedly seen better days. Forty years after the 19th-century building’s last major refurbishment, Wil Huisman set out to turn it into a facility fit for the 21st century by restoring the grade I-listed E staircase centrepiece, renewing all services, repairing the roof and internally reordering the accommodation.
As ever, it was easier said than done. Even the site setup made extraordinary calls on Wil’s management capabilities. With the sole site access a low gate that no welfare hire company had a vehicle that could fit through, Wil had to use a small 20-ton mobile crane to offload the units from flatbed lorries and place them in position.
A chimney flue inside a turret turned out to be a large engineering-brick chimney that had to be dismantled using only hand tools and a light breaker, requiring 10 extra weeks of work. Further asbestos was discovered (five extra weeks of work). A turret top was found to be in such poor condition that its top courses had to be dismantled and rebuilt (12 weeks). Additional lining was needed in the lift shaft (two weeks), and existing major pipework had to be diverted to raise the ceiling level on the ground floor (two weeks).
Wil’s timetable success was the result of decisive decision-making. He took every opportunity to make progress, moving to extended-hours working for quiet finishing trades and leveraging his construction expertise. For example, his decision to lower the lead roof level to below the top three courses of the turret allowed the lead roof to be installed without waiting for the masonry repairs, which in turn allowed the fit-out works inside the turret to progress much earlier than if the turret work had stayed on the critical path.
He innovated and value-engineered extensively. With new openings having to be made in brick walls, he challenged the expensive initial design of using custom-made steel lintels to create new pointed arches with splayed sides (the building’s predominant architectural feature). Instead, he installed standard concrete lintels above the top of the arch with a timber sub-frame, and then made the arch off site by casting plaster in moulds. And with the specified carpet unavailable in rolls wider than 3.8m, meaning most of the rooms would have had a join in the floor covering, Wil identified a manufacturer able to produce bespoke carpets up to 5m wide, leaving only two of the rooms requiring a joint.
The outcome of the project: success in spite of the challenges rather than failure because of them, with the scheme delivered on time, under budget and to an exceptional level of quality.