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IET London: Savoy Place refurbishment study

18 September 2012
By Keri Allan
Design concept image of the new library room at Savoy Place

Member News talks to Colin Porter, the member champion of the Savoy Place project team, about the refurbishment feasibility study currently underway and the latest member feedback.

Savoy Place has been the IET’s London home since 1909. A building of immense prestige to the IET and of wider historical importance, Savoy Place has served the Institution admirably over many years, however, its layout, functionality and infrastructure could be improved to support the IET’s requirements now and in the future.

With this in mind, last year the IET’s Board of Trustees commissioned an investigation into refurbishment options and a feasibility study is currently underway into a full modernisation scheme for the building.

“Following on from the refurbishment of Savoy Hill House [another IET building local to Savoy Place, which recently underwent a full refurbishment and is now being let as high-class office space] we always knew that Savoy Place needed some work on some of the basic core facilities, like the fire alarm system, the heating and air-conditioning system and the IT facilities,” says Colin Porter, a past IET Trustee and member champion on the Savoy Place project team. “They’re a bit dated for what’s supposed to be the 21st century Institution representing engineering and technology.

“[There was also a need to improve] the provision of disabled access, toilets and faster lifts with bigger capacity. When we began looking into this last year we thought if we’re going to do all these things, it was a great opportunity to really upgrade the building for the next 20 years, as its last major upgrade was in the late ‘50s,” he notes.

A building fit for the future

The refurbishment of Savoy Place is intended to reinvigorate it as the IET’s flagship home; providing a hub for its activities, a focal point for its members and a building which promotes the key contribution of engineering to society both in the past and the future.

The requirements for the refurbishment focus firstly on the needs of the IET in running its events and meetings within the building and, within that, the design concepts include a dedicated ‘Members First’ area, bringing together currently dispersed member-focused facilities into one section at the heart of the building.

This area will be split into a number of different rooms and spaces for members, places to meet socially and network as well as areas for more private meetings, research and quiet study. A large part of the Member First area will be at the front of the building overlooking the River Thames, making the most of Savoy Place’s prime position.

“Members want facilities for them to all be together,” reports Colin. “They want better access to facilities and the project team and architects have come up with the idea of a Members First floor, where (facilities) will be grouped together rather than spread all over the place as they are now.”

“Basic facilities will also improve: there will be better Wi-Fi and mobile phone coverage,” he adds.

With this in mind, technical future-proofing will be part of the project, with new cabling installed lasting roughly 20 years. Audio-visual technology will also be a key part of the building’s capabilities. Given the pace of development, flexibility to specify this later in the process will be maintained.

Consulting with members

The feasibility study continues throughout 2012, with the project team working with professional advisors and stakeholders. There has been a focus on defining the building’s future requirements, and consulting with members is a vital part of this.

Architects appointed at the beginning of the year have developed several design concepts for the building, and these are currently being discussed with members, as well as staff and other users of the building to find the optimum solutions.

“An extensive consultation exercise began in June. We’ve had a series of focus groups with members of different ages and we’ve also had some with international members. One-to-one phone interviews are going on at the moment and there will be an open evening to present the current plans at Savoy Place on 20 September,” Colin says.

Although early days, feedback on the design concepts has been supportive, as Colin adds, “It’s been very positive so far. Not everyone is universally happy with every single thing, but on balance it’s been more positive than I expected.”

Member focus groups have already contributed to the development of the design with feedback showing that there is a clear appetite for a modernisation while retaining the building’s heritage. Members consulted would like to see the building have a strong sense of being a vibrant engineering home with more networking opportunities among the engineering community.

Those consulted felt the current building fails to sufficiently project the value of engineering to its visitors and that use of the building by other users and the public would provide a valuable opportunity to showcase engineering in a positive way.

There’s still a lot to consider in regards to implementing something on this scale, but the team is giving it a lot of thought.

“We’ve had ideas from having places where members could entertain their friends and clients over dinner to our younger members wanting a nice place to get a decent pint of beer that’s not too expensive, but still in professional surroundings,” Colin highlights.

Preserving its heritage

With so much history and prestige related to the building an important aspect of the refurbishment includes retaining the look and feel of its classical features, especially the theatre and library.

The theatre is having “more of a refresh than a revamp,” Colin explains. “It’s going to be wood panelled with nice new seats, but won’t look terribly different,” he explains.

It will be getting a new ceiling, however, as, if the plans go ahead, the most significant new facility will be built above it: the Watson Watt lecture theatre.

“This will be a small modern theatre capable of seating 180-200,” says Colin. “This will be on the Members First floor and will be seen as one of the main places we will run member events.”

What will happen to the library?

In regards to the library, there will be significant changes to the use of the current room. A new 21st century library, the Knowledge Centre, will be created reflecting the movement towards greater use of digital content. The existing library will become an area for event use, retaining its character and also functioning as a book repository within the building.

Users will still be able to access physical books, journals and magazines, however, as more and more content is published digitally access to materials can be widened and the number of hardcopy publications will decline. IET’s skilled librarians will of course continue to support users’ research needs. These changes are some that members are finding a little harder to embrace, but at the same time are accepting that there’s far more use being made of online material today and see the move as a natural evolution.

“There’s also a project to provide much better facilities for our archives as they’re currently spread all over the building in a haphazard way,” notes Colin.

All ideas welcomed

Savoy Place successfully hosted the Qatar Olympic Committee during the London 2012 Olympics. The letting reinforced the status of the building and provided a kick-start to the funding of the Diamond Scholarship programme, and also highlighted how the use of the building can be adapted.

“It’s been interesting to see what they’ve done with the building, just by using some imagination. They put up a roof terrace, added settees and cushions and great big umbrellas. We’re not going to be doing anything quite like that, but we’ve looked at how they laid out and designed rooms,” Colin adds.

What next?

Early next year the findings of the feasibility study will be presented to the Board of Trustees. If the trustees choose to proceed with the project as currently proposed, the aim is to begin work in the late summer/autumn of 2013, with the refurbishment expected to take two years to complete.

If members have comments to make on the proposals they can email their views to refurb@theiet.org

Open evening

All IET members are invited to a special 'open evening' at IET London: Savoy Place on Thursday 20 September 2012 at 6pm until 8pm. The event will include a presentation on the upgrade by the project team, and will also showcase a range of IET products and services available to members. There is no need to register to attend, but if you have any questions, please email refurb@theiet.org

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