Nov 23, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

Royal Court Theatre receives dramatic energy upgrade

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Steve Hunt from building services consultancy, Steven Hunt & Associates, discusses the refurbishment scheme at Liverpool City Council’s Royal Court Theatre.


Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre has been part of the city’s cultural landscape since it was first opened as ‘Cooke’s Royal New Circus’ in 1826. Re-designed and re-opened on the same site as the Royal Court in 1881, it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt again in the Art Deco style in 1938.

The theatre has been entertaining audiences in the same building ever since and has played host to some of the acting profession’s most illustrious names, including Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud, Vivienne Leigh and Judi Dench, who made her acting debut there in 1957.

To ensure that theatre goers can continue to enjoy the building’s rich heritage and sumptuous surroundings for generations to come, the Royal Court Liverpool Trust has successfully secured funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) towards the £11.9m cost of a complete refurbishment.

Divided into phases or ‘Acts’ that will enable the theatre to remain open for as much of the programme as possible, the refurbishment is now well underway. The £1.2m Act I improvements to the auditorium were completed in 2012 and the latest scheme to transform the theatre is the £3m Act 2 programme involving refurbishment of the entrance and ground floor circulation areas, including an extension to increase the footprint of the public areas. Act 3, a £ 2.9m revamp of the balcony and basement levels is planned for 2017.

One of the biggest challenges of keeping the building operational throughout this complex programme of works has been designing the building services so that the mechanical and electrical installation could be upgraded without business interruption. Steven Hunt & Associates has worked closely with the theatre’s team and the architect, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) to build those requirements into the design.

Energy upgrade

The theatre’s power distribution was still operating from the building’s original 1938 panel board which was no longer fit for purpose. The old panel has been isolated and made safe but retained for historical interest. However, the design needed to accommodate an installation schedule that would avoid supply being cut off to the auditorium. The new distribution system involves amalgamation of the two existing switch rooms into a single switch room and work to move the building over to the new supply had to be delivered out of hours to ensure that any risk of power outages was avoided.

Rewiring and lighting refurbishment of the auditorium had already been completed as part of the Act I programme but, as the whole building is on the same supply network, upgrades to the electrical distribution in the Act 2 programme had to be designed to ensure that any isolations did not affect performances.

Dramatic lighting

Lighting was a key design element of the Act 2 programme and the Steven Hunt & Associates team worked closely with the architect to ensure that the complexities of the aesthetic vision were delivered in the building services design.

The lighting theme is black and gold and there are twin recessed downlights throughout the foyer area with black and gold wall lights in the stairways and break out spaces. Hidden LED lighting in the lobby pelmets provides a soft ambient light, while glass pendants over the lobby have been included in the design for drama.

All the foyer lighting is linked to scene setting controls to enable the theatre to adjust settings depending on the time of day and the type of event being held, maximising the flexibility of the public spaces.

Energy efficiency has also been designed into the lighting scheme. All fittings are LED, including the rewired and re-lamped existing fittings in the basement. PIR presence and absence detection has been included in the scheme for the toilets. Externally, recessed LED strip lights in the terrace floor have been specified to light the facade, with further strip lighting under the handrails and recessed downlights to light the entrance to the foyer. All of these external lighting features are controlled by timers and photocell daylight sensors.

Warm performance

The mechanical design for Act 2 also worked on the principle of making best use of existing assets while updating and upgrading them for the extended building and contemporary energy efficiency performance.

The heating system utilises the existing gas-fired boiler, which has now been enhanced with a new weather compensated variable temperature radiator circuit with intelligent controls that monitor the heat to maintain a constant optimum temperature and ensure energy is not wasted.

Heating is provided by a new network of flat panel radiators which have been located around the building to optimise heat circulation and designed into furniture where possible to create an unobtrusive system that blends into the interior design.

A mechanical ventilation system with high efficiency heat recovery units further limits the energy demand from the heating system.

Alongside the energy saving elements of the building services specification, water conservation has also been integrated into the services design to enhance the theatre’s sustainability credentials. PIR sensors in the toilets control shut off valves in the sanitary ware to isolate the water supply when the facilities are not in use.

Applauding heritage

The Act 2 programme has now been completed and preparations are underway for the curtain to rise on Act 3. What the scheme illustrates is that it is possible to update and improve a treasured public building, enhancing energy efficiency and the end user experience while protecting its heritage.

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