Conservation engineering is about repairing and preserving what is there. However it can also be about developing the future use and purpose of a building to ensure it remains viable. When the iconic Usher Hall opened its doors recently, after being closed for six months, it was not for a socially distanced concert, but as a walk through Covid-19 testing centre. Edinburgh City Council recognised that the venue’s new extension, with accessible level access, would provide a good, practical venue for the local community to use in these challenging times.
Re-purposing one of Edinburgh’s best-known venues in this way is great to see. I was the structural engineer working with the architect from LDN and Edinburgh City Council on the ambitious plans to renovate the building back in 2010. Our aim was to create an inclusive space that would encourage new audiences to come to concerts. In time there will be music again, but for now this beautiful building in the heart of the city is relevant and has a new lease of life.
The Usher Hall Extension was an incredibly complex project. The design intention of the architect was a stunning centre piece staircase that would offer access to every level of the hall. As the lead engineer, my role was to back up the architect’s vision with calculations and work out how the structure could be built and the interventions made within the historic fabric. It was also about finding a solution: a sympathetic approach to the alteration of a historic Grade A listed building.
For the staircase we took inspiration from a style found in the tenements in the city. The approach is called a pencheck stair, which traditionally was built in stone. In this instance we replicated it in steel to give it the clean edges and modern feel the architect wanted. This allowed for a structure that was creative, practical and appropriate to the original Beaux Arts interior of the building.
The staircase was the gateway to all levels, a necessity for opening up the building to all users. The decision about how and where to cut spaces for the new access points was the next challenge. We needed to be practical; the building is a well-attended venue and the need to get to your seat quickly is important. There was also a need for careful consideration to balance the requirements of the audience against any disruption to the original fabric of the building.
Collaboration is always a key element to my work at Will Rudd on this and every other project. Although we are known for are technical skills and understanding of buildings, engineers are at heart problem solvers. With a refurbishment project there will always be something unforeseen and it’s important to approach it with the attitude of “how we can get this right?”
A more recent project involving the same principals was working with Page\Park architects to realise their design to re-purpose an old, derelict factory – a part of Edinburgh’s industrial heritage – into a creative hub for printmakers. The original factory was where Wellington boots were made for the troops in the First World War. The Edinburgh Printmakers is now a multi-use art complex open to the community. The welly boot factory is now an art gallery, shop, café, education centre and a studio for print production.
The structural challenges brought about were huge and at the outset the whole of the top floor was unable to bear any weight. Our first role on the project posed the question: how are we going to make sure this building is safe? This was before we could be involved in its creative and sympathetic transformation. Our re-purposing respects the fabric, character and heritage of the original building which is now delivering creative, economic and social improvements to the community of Fountainbridge.
My work is often hidden from plain sight. The story and complications of excavating tonnes of rubble is not one that gets much notice. But I do remember standing in a large space in the ground, to eventually be the Usher Hall basement level, with the whole of the original building above me thinking: this is why I am a structural engineer.