A £37m capital project is always going to be demanding, but throw in Grade-II listed status, asbestos and Roman remains and you’ve got a real challenge. Graham Lister explains how Storyhouse Chester managed it.

Photo of screen in library

It is generally accepted that capital projects relating to the cultural sector, especially theatre, are brimming with difficulties and challenges. They can often take longer to build than anticipated, invariably are high-profile, hugely political and often contested locally. Sometimes when they arrive, they are not quite what people expected. And yes, they can also go over budget.

Chester’s new building, Storyhouse, is an example of a project that managed to navigate challenges of a political and historical nature and stay on course.

The problem

Chester was founded as a Roman Fort in the year 79 and was known as Deva. It was one of three major Roman army bases in the UK. The Roman amphitheatre, which had seats for 7,000 spectators, is the largest in the country.

Fast-forward to January 2013, and local people had been waiting many years for a replacement to the worn-out and closed Gateway Theatre. The city was losing its profile, visitor numbers were down, and people were tired of the lack of cultural infrastructure – no cinema, no theatre, no art gallery.

The vision was to transform the city’s 1930’s Art Deco Cinema into a beautiful new cultural centre, which would incorporate a theatre, cinema, bistro and city centre library. The original Odeon was not only to be gutted, but also doubled in size, and over £30m of building works would be carried out over a concentrated 24-month period. We were working with a Grade-II listed building, which was also riddled with asbestos.

Finding Roman remains came as no particular surprise to our design and construction team, but the challenge was to ensure our new project was able to be delivered on schedule without damaging Chester’s valuable archaeological heritage.

How we solved it

The project would not have been possible without a diverse group of people and agencies coming together…

At the time, I was living in Leicester and we had just dug up Richard III, so I was very aware of the potential impact on the project. The key task was to ensure we were able to keep to our schedule. Any deviation has an immediate cost implication and can run into many hundreds of thousands of pounds very quickly.

It was equally important to balance the commercial issues with local and national sensitivities surrounding the preservation of these valuable heritage assets. Although the people of Chester wanted a new theatre and cultural centre, they were also extremely vocal in wanting to preserve their Roman Heritage.

The design and construction team set about carrying out extensive survey work, both in the Odeon building and the adjacent areas where the new 800 seat theatre would be constructed. It was during this period that the two Roman roads were discovered, laying just inches below the original concrete floor of the Odeon. In 1936, when the Odeon was constructed, they had simply concreted over the Roman road.

While these excavations were taking place, a broad group of consultees were assembled. These included Historic England, Chester Archaeological Society, Local Authority Heritage and Conservation Officers, Civic Trust, local interest groups, academics and commercial archaeological specialist’s Earthworks.

Over a three-month-period the team worked towards creating an underground structural model that would support the aspirations of the new building but, crucially, minimise the damage to the archaeology. The emerging design solution would leave the Roman road intact and only impacted on 4.3% of what was considered to be valuable remains. This was an extraordinary achievement when considering the complexities and technical requirements of buildings of this nature.

As part of the overall process, a 12-week archaeological dig was conducted by Earthworks. The aim of this was to ‘proof’ the emerging design but also to safely remove any remains which would be damaged as a result of the groundworks.

The project would not have been possible without a diverse group of people and agencies coming together – including a council, an arts organisation (formally Chester Performs – now known as Storyhouse), the library service, Arts Council England, external designers, construction teams, cultural experts, and politicians from two political parties. All these organisations and individuals understood this was a collective effort and a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something brilliant.

We also understood that the revelation was an important community engagement tool. The team worked closely with the arts organisation that was to run the new centre when open (now also known as Storyhouse) and local archaeological groups – opportunities were provided for a 150 people to take part in the dig. Working together, this process was used to attract some really positive TV, radio and press coverage. All this contributed to the growing opinion that this was an exciting project, involving multiple groups and agencies, being carried out with great care, skill and diligence.

End result

There were many other challenges along the way which the team had to deal with. However, the building was completed and opened in May last year. It was delivered on budget and is already picking up awards. It has been extremely well received by people locally and is collecting significant national press and media coverage.

Great credit needs to go to the management team at Storyhouse and to the Library who have turned a capital programme into an artistic and operational reality. Together they attracted over 500,000 people in the first six months of operation. Reviews and ticket sales are good, and the programme is connecting and engaging with the borough’s communities.

Cheshire West and Chester council are delighted with their investment; they represent a small number of councils who are increasing rather than decreasing their cultural investment. For them culture is at the heart of their thinking. Long may it last!

Graham Lister is an arts and cultural advisor and specialises in capital projects in the cultural sector.

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