Building a new people’s palace at Olympia

Adding a host of new uses and spaces to a still-operational exhibition venue is a tall order. CN finds out how Laing O’Rourke is rising to the challenge

Project client: Yoo Capital and Deutsche Finance International
Main contractor: Laing O’Rourke
Architect: Heatherwick Studio and SPPARC
Structural engineering: Robert Bird Associates
Cost consultant: Gardiner & Theobald
Heritage consultant: Montagu Evans
Demolition: Erith
Piling: Expanded Piling
Steelwork: BHC
MEP: Crown House Technologies
Construction start date: July 2021
Expected handover: Different sections will be handed over from July 2024, with final fit-out expected to be completed in June 2025

In 1884, the company behind the Olympia Exhibition set out to “educate the masses, aye, and even the ‘classes’ by exhibitions of art, science and industry”.

The venue bought by global real estate firm Yoo Capital in 2017 hadn’t entirely lived up to the promise. “It was a local fortress – unless you had a ticket to a show or wanted to go to Pizza Express,” said Yoo’s Louise Page-Jennings at the time.

All this is about to change. Yoo is dropping a cool £1.3bn on converting Olympia from a quirky Victorian artefact into a people’s palace fit for the 21st century. Main contractor Laing O’Rourke has the task of slotting in a new exhibition space, a performing arts school, a 1,575-seat theatre, a 4,400 capacity music venue, two hotels, 10 storeys of offices and more than 20 restaurants around several slightly decaying listed buildings.

Future Olympia’s project director Tony Palgrave made his name as the man who built the Shard while construction director at Mace. His latest venture may not be as tall, but a plethora of conflicting uses packed tightly together makes for a challenging intricate structural patchwork. “Seven buildings happening at the same time takes a different mindset,” he says. “That takes a huge amount of coordination.”

To simplify the process, Laing O’Rourke is making the most of its Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) factory in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. The project comprises around 65 to 68 per cent prefabricated components, Palgrave says.

Hotel Room Service

One sub-project where DfMA came in handy was the National Hall annexe, occupying the site’s south-east corner. The neoclassical building was quickly identified for a 145-room hotel for luxury chain citizenM. To avoid demolishing heritage ceilings and panelling in the existing structure, designers proposed a three-storey roof extension.

The existing 100-year-old structural masonry – containing an early example of a steel frame – would not have been able to support the extension’s weight. Aside from its age, the building suffered from a mild case of Regent’s Street disease, where moisture ingress corrodes steel within early 20th century masonry cladding.

Instead, Laing O’Rourke threaded new 20-metre columns through the building and installed a new core made from precast twinwall panels. The DfMA twinwall and lattice plank flooring could be installed relatively quickly – a boon when doing construction work next to a busy live-exhibition venue, says Palgrave.

The new columns are supported at the base by 300-millimetre diameter piles, installed by Laing O’Rourke subsidiary Expanded Piling using a micropiling rig stationed in the basement. They are laterally restrained above the existing building, where they support a transfer deck to hold the new hotel room. “It’s sort of like the building is stood on stilts,” says Nick Cole, project director at structural engineer Robert Bird.

Figuring out what to do with the multistorey car park was not so simple. The 1930s structure was Grade II-listed in 2018 – its split-level layout and curved-ramp access system were architecturally innovative when it was built. Yet the very design features that made the structure worth preserving were difficult to translate into modern building uses. Besides, a century’s worth of de-icing salt had left the concrete in bad shape, and concrete carbonation to the brick facing along with reinforcing steel corrosion risked causing the bricks to spall. The building was demolished to make way for a new structure to house a Hyatt Regency hotel and an independent performing arts school.

The final vehicles to drive up the car park’s once-pioneering curved ramps were the 8 and 13 tonne excavators that Erith used to pulverise the floor slabs from the top of the building downwards. Once demolished, Laing installed a new frame made from prefabricated post-tensioned concrete slabs.

External factors

Joseph Emberton’s art deco facade with its blocky ‘OLYMPIA’ lettering has loomed over Hammersmith Road relatively untouched since 1929. The same cannot be said for the building behind it. Successive occupiers of the Central Hall have knocked out staircases, added a lightwell, put in and removed asbestos.

The designers of the current scheme decided to continue this tradition of alteration by adding a new 15-storey building.

Architect Thomas Heatherwick designed a new office complex rising up behind Central Hall’s retained facade. The building will contain more than 60,000 square metres of premium office space across five lozenge-shaped structures, which Cole calls its “fingers”.

Demolition contractor Erith protected the facade with prefabricated bespoke ply sheeting with a foam backing before taking out the windows and sending them to be remoulded by heritage specialist ASWS, which upgraded their thermal performance and rebuilt them to look exactly as they did before.

Erith also had to dismantle and rebuild a section of the top of the facade to minimise temporary works while Laing O’Rourke built the new superstructure behind it. It carried out a pre-condition survey, carefully dismantled the section using hand tools and small impact breakers, then palletised and meticulously logged the material so it could be rebuilt in the correct place.

The team used a top-down construction technique so work could progress on different buildings without waiting for complex foundation work to complete. The technique also protected the neighbouring Grand Hall’s Grade II*-listed glazed barrel-vaulted roof, whose weight is shored up by large pad foundations. If Laing O’Rourke had dug away next to the hall’s foundations, its 150-year-old, 51-metre-long arch would have collapsed in on itself.

The towering office block cantilevers up to 12 metres over that arch, held up by V-shaped steel columns and internal diagonal ties. This helped minimise intervention in nearby listed buildings and also offered around 82,008 square metres more in lettable floorspace.

The fingers’ curved edges allowed Laing O’Rourke to wrap diagonal bracing around the outside. Straight edges would have required bracing running through the middle of the floor plate. All floor slabs are prefabricated lattice planks and the outside will be clad with unitised panels supplied by Scheldebouw.

Laing O’Rourke threaded six large columns through the Grand Hall – the venue’s main exhibition space – avoiding the existing latticework and wrought iron trusses in the roof. Erith made around 120 openings in the Grand Hall to take the columns. It worked during the night, making around two penetrations each session, which were protected and re-covered before thousands of visitors arrived the next day. “If you don’t get a portion of work done in time, theoretically the show wouldn’t have been able to go on,” said Erith operations director Terry Madden. “The loss of revenue to the client doesn’t bear thinking about.”

The building standing in the place of the old Central Hall is structurally intertwined with a new-build to be known as the G-Gate. A theatre, operated by Trafalgar Entertainment Group, will be sandwiched between an exhibition space below and three levels of office above.

The functional requirements of the theatre – long spans free of structural columns, vibration isolation and sophisticated acoustics – required thoughtful engineering to accommodate the building’s other uses. The cores within the theatre are fully isolated. Each one sits on a stiffened baseplate, with elastomeric acoustic bearings, supplied by CDM, at the top and bottom. Large prefabricated trusses transfer the theatre’s radial column grid to the widely spaced regular column grid of the exhibition space below. The heaviest truss on G-Gate is 16.5m span, 2.8m deep and weighs 62 tonnes. “The trusses have to work extra hard because a theatre is such a lively place,” Cole says.

Once most of the buildings are completed, Laing O’Rourke will add a thoughtful finishing touch – a new statue of the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter. The original statue, which stood in the Grand Hall, went missing long ago, and council heritage officers were keen to reinstate her. Laing O’Rourke will prefabricate the goddess in its manufacturing facility out of a single chunk of Portland stone.

DfMA Demeter will soon resume her rightful place watching out over the Grand Hall, an emblem of how Laing O’Rourke has used the techniques of the present to bring the past back to life.

The logistics of working on a live site

Once Covid restrictions eased, Olympia’s events calendar filled up with a vengeance. Laing O’Rourke has had to work around weekly trade shows and consumer fairs, with crowd-pleasers like the Ideal Home Show and London Book Fair attracting up to 15,000 visitors a day.

The team has hired out the nearby Mortlake Brewery site, which lies dormant while a residential scheme planned on the site is redesigned due to new requirements for second staircases. On particularly busy days, delivery vehicles are held there until the exact moment their loads are needed.

Offsite manufacturing has also eased the logistical strain. “If we hadn’t used DfMA, it would have been a lot more difficult to get this job built,” says Palgrave. “That was one of the main considerations for using Laing O’Rourke – because of this capability.”

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