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When media giant Viacom decided to refurbish its UK HQ, the planning and design team had to carry out the works without any disruption to transmission. We find out how they did it

London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced in February that the city has been chosen to host the 24th annual MTV European Music Awards 2017. He delivered the news from the newly refurbished offices of MTV’s parent company in Camden.

As soon as you enter Hawley Crescent – not far from busy Camden High Street, where Viacom International has its UK headquarters – it’s pretty obvious which building houses the big-name media brands MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and Channel 5. For on the south and west facing elevations of the building is a living wall, complete with bold geometric patterns, which attracts butterflies, bees and other wildlife, along with its fair share of sightseers.

On entering the building you’re assailed by a brightly lit reception area with a massive screen showing some of the output of the media channels within. Once through security you enter a wide atrium with a café, dining and meeting space which can be opened up for town hall meetings and events. Overlooking this is the workspace, which incorporates a series of open plan offices, meeting rooms and break-out areas. And beyond that is a series of production suites, control rooms and further offices, all with their own individual styles, including colourful images of Sponge Bob for Nickelodeon, the Channel 5 or Comedy Central logo, or a trendy MTV image.

It all appears very melded and established, but it is, in fact, the result of not one but two major refurbishment projects which linked the original TV-AM building, designed in the early 1980s, with much older buildings previously used as studios. The final addition, completed at the end of summer last year, was the construction of a brand-new four-storey tower. The overall effect is a linked campus which allows its 1,100-plus occupants to work in an old Victorian redbrick, an ultra-modern tower, and various sizes and shapes of offices in between.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Carrying out any refurbishment project within a busy commercial office is always a challenge, but undertaking two major refurbs in under five years within a broadcast media hub – where a break in output wasn’t an option – was at another level.

“I’ve been here just over 10 years and we’ve completed two major building projects on this site,” explains Kerry Waterman, VP of planning & design & office services, Viacom International. “One was the creation of the office block at the entrance and refurbishment of the ground floor, which started in 2011 and concluded in 2013, at which time the central London office location near Oxford Circus closed and both Viacom and Comedy Central moved to Camden. In addition Nickelodeon also moved in from their Rathbone Place offices – and the site became established as one of the largest Viacom sites outside of the US.

“The dust had just settled when we had to think about where to put recently acquired Channel 5. We looked at a number of options, culminating in the exploration of what else this site could offer. The proposal to build again was hatched in November 2014; by February 2015 we were into planning, and by summer 2015 we were building. It was incredibly quick.”

With the latest project, the plan to extend the available space was both ingenious and ambitious, as there was just one space left on the site where an extension was possible. It was decided to utilise this potential and build upwards into a tower to give the organisation some much-needed new space.

Explains Adam Thornton of 5 Plus Architects, the Executive Architect on the project: “There was only one space left on this site, which was a little external courtyard, with an old green wall built around that space, which is why during the programme it was dubbed the ‘infill project‘ – because we were filling in the only gap left on the site. Essentially, we went up and went out, with two floors cantilevered over the existing building. The challenge was that the courtyard had live buildings on three sides, while underneath is a live substation that keeps the whole operation going.”

He adds: “Sixty-five-plus channels go out from here, so if the power went down to this facility for any length of time, the loss would quickly reach six figures. This is why the substations had to be kept going throughout – a key challenge on this project.”

Although the works required a major demolition, creating tonnes of rubble, during the project, no one was moved off the site. Instead, explains Waterman: “Temporary partitioning was put up during both projects and we lived behind it, continuing our transmission 24/7.”

As part of the latest works, further refurbishments to over 33,000 square feet of offices on the first floor of the older part of the building were carried out. This included new lighting, redecoration, carpeting and ceiling tiles, all done while everybody remained on site. There was also considerable work to be done on the technical spaces throughout both builds; 14 edit suites and the new studio complex (to replace the studios demolished for the new build) were created as part of the first build, and a further 19 edit suites were created in the Elephant House (part of the Hawley Crescent campus) for the second.

One of the biggest challenges was managing the two substations situated within the building – one feeding the site, the other powering the local area street lighting. There was also a third for site use, situated in the courtyard. Says Waterman: “We had big negotiations with the utility supplier, and determined we would have our two substations within the building – while within the undercut beneath the tower is a new building that we had to create, from which the utilities firm supplies the street. That means we’re now a high voltage site. That was probably the most difficult part of the whole process – dealing with the utilities supplier’s timetable when you’re on a tight programme.”

About Sarah OBeirne

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