How to incorporate a 150-year-old church in a corporate HQ

The building occupies a tight, city-centre site (Image: Donal Murphy Photography)

Alan Barnes won Ireland’s Construction Manager of the year in 2019 for his work on a complex conservation and refurbishment project on Scots Church in Dublin. Here he tells us about his experience of the build.

Collen Construction was awarded the tender to build the new corporate headquarters for VHI Healthcare in Dublin. I embraced the role of project manager. The project scope included the expansion of the existing VHI Healthcare offices and the restoration and adaptive reuse of a 150-year-old Presbyterian church ‘Scots Church’ on Abbey Street in Dublin’s busy city centre. 

The project planned to incorporate the existing church hall within the belly of a new innovative and contemporary diagrid exoskeleton office block with a unitised curtain wall envelope. Scots Church was a protected structure and the primary challenge for me was to respect and preserve all the significant historical and architectural heritage of the church, while meeting the client’s specific requirements. Fully integrating both the church buildings into the overall envelope was a demanding challenge.

Once completed, the newly expanded office fully integrated the existing office space, enabling the new structure to seamlessly connect with the original buildings. The design created a glazed ground floor link between the main church building and existing office which lies adjacent to the new reception entrance for ease of circulation throughout new and existing buildings. 

In-situ concrete floor plates were suspended above the existing church hall, internalised within the triangular diagrid steel framework and unitised curtain walling systems which together provided the structure and envelope. This created a building that provided innovative office space, communal breakout/meeting areas, innovation hub space and a contemporary energetic workspace for the VHI staff. 

In my experience, organising the logistics of any city-centre project, including access to work in restricted spaces, is a complex challenge. The site was enclosed on three sides with train tracks along the northern boundary, the Irish National Theatre to the immediate west and the client’s offices bordered the eastern boundary. 

This extremely restricted footprint meant the building had to be constructed with a single tower crane – erecting 500 tonnes of steel, 220 facade panels and seven floors of in-situ concrete. It was crucial that I communicated clearly to all the stakeholders to ensure the coordination of major tasks. 

Every aspect of the project created challenges: planning and executing city centre demolitions; piling next door to the National Theatre; respecting the interests of businesses and residents; and honouring the conservation and restoration of a 150-year-old church.

As project manager, I am proud to have led a skilled and dedicated team through these challenges, and personally and professionally it has been enormously satisfying to deliver a high quality, unique project that has exceeded the client’s expectations.

Alan Barnes is project manager at Collen Construction

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