Meet the Structural Engineer
Over 30 individual specialists from Buro Happold's Bath office have been involved in the transformation project so far. Their engineering brains deal with a complex jigsaw in the construction process from the drainage in the ground and how the water enters the public sewer, to the foundations and structure of the new building and making sure the concrete and steel supports work properly.
Andrew Wylie manages this team and specialises in structural design. It's his job to make sure the all the jigsaw pieces fit together correctly and compares the construction of a new building to the make up of the human body!
'The architect creates the framework and detail of the body – the height, size, shape, build, eye colour; the structural engineer designs the skeleton – making sure the muscles move correctly; the electrical engineer designs the nervous system and the mechanical engineer the digestive system. It's a good way to help people understand the role of the engineer in a project like the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
'It's a complex planning process which has to be meticulous and methodical. We look at which bits of the building are staying up, which are coming down and importantly will it stand up. How do we keep the retained bits of the building safe during the construction?
'It's really helpful to have as much information about an existing building before we start work. At the beginning of this project we contacted the grandson of the original site engineer and he was able to give us valuable designs to help us understand the history of the building and how it stood up. This informed how we could safely make the structural alterations to the building.
'I suppose Structural engineers are a little like 'history detectives' and working on this project has been a fascinating journey of discovery so far. We've dug things up that haven't seen the light of day for 70 years.
'When we removed the huge 5 tonne roof trusses we found out that they were riveted – that was surprising as this was a pretty old fashioned technique for the time and was probably down to cost and circumstance when the building was constructed. The ventilation and heating systems of the 1932 theatre were very clever for the time they were built. The brutality of the alterations that have been made to the building over the years has also been made clear. The additions of the café and restaurant to the riverside façade were not sympathetic to the original architecture and now there's a lot of restoration work to do.
'This is a complex project as it's an intervention into an existing building. It's much easier to design and build from scratch, but it's nice not to turn your back on what's gone before. Retaining an original wall and then attaching it to the new building is like major surgery. It's quite straight forward really. What is complex is the amount of work going on in the small footprint of the original building. Also building next to water and making sure the huge 7 metre basement doesn't leak and seeing the giant construction machinery moving near to the retained areas and hoping they don't knock them down.
'I've been looking at the plans for this project for over two years and actually seeing the building being taken apart after that time is exciting. It's the moment of truth. Did we get it right, will it fit? So far we have but even when the building is finished it doesn't end there. We have to help the RSC to use the new building correctly to get the most from it. Making sure the heating systems and the lighting are working efficiently and making sure the Company understands what has been designed for them. There's still a long way to go.
'It's a massive project and one that I'm really pleased to be involved in. It's a hugely pressured environment but it's a team effort and I'm enjoying that. I can safely say that I've employed almost every technique used in my career to date in this one scheme and that's pretty unique. I'm going to feel proud when it gets to the opening night.'
Andrew Wylie is Associate for Buro Happold, Integrated Engineers.