Sheila Benjamin never thought she’d know so much about construction. She reveals what it was like overseeing a £28m capital project for LAMDA. 

Photo of two young people in hig-vis jackets in area above stage

Richard Hubert Smith

The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) opened its new building in June this year, the culmination of a 20-year vision to house all our activities on a single site. In the late 1990s, our premises in west London were unfit for purpose and a search led us to the former Royal Ballet School buildings in Barons Court, where we moved in 2003.

I have more knowledge of poplar trees, Victorian tiling, tower cranes and construction materials than anyone could possibly want

With some alterations, the premises were ideal: large studios with sprung floors, a studio theatre and administrative offices, and, most importantly, there was scope to develop part of the site. Planning consent was granted in 2009 and the sale of the old MacOwan Theatre, on our former site in west London, kick-started the project and enabled detailed design to begin in 2011.

A challenging project

Our requirements were exacting – we needed ten flexible hard-wearing teaching studios, small meeting rooms and offices, student changing facilities, a library, a dedicated screen and audio suite and two theatres with professional technical and backstage facilities, to house the 23 public productions produced annually for paying audiences and industry professionals. Extensive acoustic treatments were also essential.

From a design and construction perspective, the site could not have been worse. At the edge of a conservation area, it is squeezed between the A4 (one of the busiest roads in Europe), the District and Piccadilly tube lines (with 600 trains a day rattling past) and a large sub-station.

Planning consent, construction logistics and site access not only involved the local authority and the usual statutory consultations, but also the close involvement throughout of Transport for London and London Underground Ltd (TfL/LUL).

New expertise

At the beginning of my arts management career, none of this would have been of interest as capital projects weren’t on my radar. Starting out with zero construction knowledge, I have now overseen projects at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and Shoreditch Town Hall Trust, as well as this one at LAMDA.

The advent of the National Lottery in the 1990s and the burgeoning of new cultural buildings have taken many arts professionals into new territory, where we have become experts in unexpected areas. I have more knowledge of poplar trees, Victorian tiling, tower cranes and construction materials than anyone could possibly want (scholarly note: ‘fairfaced block’ is a type of brick, not a Shakespearean insult).

In turn, we have introduced architects, engineers and construction consultants to the particular requirements of cultural and performance spaces. We employed experienced theatre and acoustic consultants, but neither our architects, Niall McLaughlin Architects, nor our main contractor, VolkerFitzpatrick Ltd (VFL), had significant theatre design or construction experience. Interesting discussions about the colours for a black box theatre and the need for a full-height fly tower and tension wire grid (because we train theatre technicians) ensued.

The project had other challenges. High winds, tower cranes and major roads and railways are not an ideal combination and weather delays were frustrating. ‘Value engineering’ was a recurring theme that sometimes required choosing the practical over the aesthetic.

The £28.2m cost (including construction, VAT, fees, relocation costs and fixtures and fittings) was met from the MacOwan theatre sale, our Act Now! fundraising campaign (£10.3m), loan finance and our own resources.

Our board was instrumental, not just in raising funds, but also in overseeing the project through a building committee that included trustees with construction and planning expertise. Independent advice from specialist solicitors, surveyors and construction professionals was also essential. As well as construction issues, we negotiated right-to-light agreements with residents, tricky licence and access arrangements with TfL/LUL and the purchase of a tiny pocket of land (with two owners) containing a large tree that would have prevented construction.

Staying on site

We remained in our existing buildings throughout, hiring extra teaching and performance venues to house displaced activities. ‘LAMDA at Large’ seasons saw our graduating students perform at theatres across London. Experiencing different spaces was invaluable, but nothing matched the delight when we produced the first shows in our new Sainsbury Theatre and Carne Studio Theatre this summer.

Staying on site enabled us to forge an excellent relationship with VFL’s project manager, who accommodated over 100 site visits for staff, students and potential donors, and handled our ‘panicky client’ moments with great diplomacy. Together, we kept our local community in touch through regular newsletters and it was gratifying to see over 500 visitors exploring the new building during our recent ‘Community Day’.

It was a wonderful reminder that capital projects are ultimately about people. The challenges and exhaustion of this special project were far outweighed by the rewards and exhilaration, as we finally saw the creativity and energy of our staff and students animate the theatres, studios and corridors, which had been planned and imagined for so long.

Sheila Benjamin is General Manager of LAMDA.

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Photo of Sheila Benjamin