Building with its own magic

Two years ago, the IET completed the latest renovations to its Savoy Place site in London, spending over £30 million on additional meeting rooms, a members’ area and a second presentation theatre. Steve Montgomery was invited to tour the latest facilities.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) headquarters in Savoy Place, a couple of hundred metres or so from the Savoy Hotel in central London and a stone’s throw from Somerset House has been the organisation’s home since 1909. The president at that time declared that ‘there is no finer site in London.’

Standing on the bank of the Thames, it has spectacular views towards St Paul’s, the City of London and the Houses of Parliament; a feature that helps cement the building as one of the most prestigious and attractive venues in London for conferences and events.

The building has been renovated on numerous occasions, the last being completed in January 2016. This was one of the largest projects ever undertaken, taking two years to complete and costing over £30 million. It included the addition of several new meeting rooms and a members’ area. A steel roof over the Kelvin Theatre was replaced with a concrete floor to accommodate a second presentation theatre, named after Alan Turing. Above that, the Riverside function was enlarged. Total floor space was increased by one third.

“This is a working building. It is primarily for use by the Institution’s 168,000 professional members – providing them with a central London location with all the facilities they need to meet colleagues, exchange ideas, learn, be comfortable and productive,” explained Sean Spencer, the IET’s head of venues and facilities. The IET holds 1,660 events per annum to share knowledge and promote science, engineering and technology at Savoy Place.

“Event space not occupied by the IET can be hired by third party external events which brings in a revenue stream where funds are used to maintain the building itself and to further engineering training and outreach.”

Bespoke facilities
As the flagship building for one of the world’s foremost engineering and technology institutes, one would expect the internal audio visual and communication facilities to be of the highest order. And they are. “Each of the 75 individual areas within the building has been equipped with AV and communication equipment, ranging from the large conference theatre down to small workpods in the members’ area. Equipment that serves a purpose and delivers capabilities that meet, and in most cases exceed, the usage of that area,” explains Kevin Madeja, technical director of Snelling Business Systems, the company responsible for installing and integrating the equipment throughout the building.

The result has surpassed expectations. Prior to renovation around 7,500 members and their guests used the building each year. This has now shot up to 35,000, says Spencer. Similarly, the number of events has also rocketed. He proudly notes that internal and external events have more than doubled to around 2,000 annually with 80,000 delegates, bringing in external income in excess of £5 million. “Revenue per delegate has climbed because we can offer better facilities, services and catering. This is down to the quality and flexibility of what we have on offer,” he says.

Snelling Business Systems
Snelling Business Systems was awarded the contract to deliver the AV and communication solution in 2014, when the building had been gutted and was effectively a building site. At this stage an independent consultant, David Yates from Recursive, had been helping the IET to define the full requirement specification and the system needed to fulfil those requirements. Members were consulted and provided practical input on the way they wanted to see the building evolve. The outcome was a series of comprehensive system drawings and written specifications that were used to let the tender that Snelling won.

Madeja outlines what he believes was responsible for their success: “Price was obviously a factor, but the IET liked our approach and the way we responded at their tender interview. The overriding objective was to create a building with the amenities and facilities of a world-leading conference centre befitting the status of the Institution and reflecting its role as the champion of engineering and technology disciplines.”

Striking a balance
As with all major projects of this type, a balance had to be struck between deploying current technology whilst preparing for that expected in the future. “At this time AV extension and switching using HDMI and HDBaseT were reasonably well-established. However, distribution techniques like IPTV were blossoming, but with some uncertainty in how important they would be in the coming years. We knew, too, that AV-over-IP was coming and likely to be a core technology in the future.”

The first stage of the integration programme was to create more detailed system and equipment drawings, from which accurate device layout, interconnection and work schedules could be planned. Inevitably, better ideas were uncovered. Consultation with the IET’s IT and facilities teams established which of those was accepted. “An example: one of our recommendations was to run fibre cabling around the building to plan for the expected expansion in IP-related devices for network AV transmission,” Toby Wise, managing director of Snelling, remembers. “But at that time installing fibre was not cheap and the cost proved prohibitive.” Some fibre cabling was installed, though, from the roadside to the roof terrace, from which the BBC has filmed daily weather reports for morning TV with a stunning view of the Thames in the background.

The two-year integration and installation programme encountered the usual problems encountered in projects of this complexity and scale. Madeja reports that there were no strikingly unique issues other integrators wouldn’t already have come across: building delays, access restrictions, carefully-installed cables cut by over-enthusiastic tradesmen, equipment overheating in tiny storage rooms, access restrictions and, of course, the way in which builders tend not to treat expensive items of AV equipment with the tenderness and care they should. In one instance a core drill was used in a projection room, resulting in a thick layer of concrete dust covering a projector, and the consequent panic order of a new projector in order to meet the ‘soft-opening’ of a conference room. “Normal stuff,” he claims.

Members’ area
As a charitable institution, owned by, and operated for its members, the Faraday Centre needs to meet their requirements and expectations; whether this is simply a desk to work at or a place to invite guests for a London meeting – or somewhere to have a high quality video conference call with a client or partner. Around the second floor, there is a series of small meeting areas in workpods each with an eight-person table, LCD screen and laptop connection. Each pod has access to a Cabletime IPTV network, enabling viewers to access mainstream TV channels as well as the institute’s own internal TV system that produces and distributes video material, lectures and presentations and can transmit externally sourced videos.

Larger meeting and interview rooms within the members’ area are equipped with similar facilities with the addition of Polycom videoconferencing units. AMX touch panels have been programmed to operate the services in each of these locations using intuitive soft-buttons. “These are engineers using the systems, so we didn’t expect any problems with the human interface,” jokes Madeja. “But there was a period immediately after completion during which it was apparent that they were being used differently to that envisaged when the specifications were drawn up. That’s not unusual in AV projects and simply involved minor changes to the interface programming and some small system changes.”

Members also have access to several conference rooms and meeting rooms, as well as a library, combined reception area and roof terrace that are made available for external events and generate significant revenues for the IET.

All are equipped with similar sets of AV equipment: a suitably-sized LCD screen (the largest on site is 96in) or projector combined with local PC and AV inputs through suitably-positioned floor boxes and an AMX touch panel. Rooms are connected back to the main central equipment rooms with common source equipment. In addition, some of the larger rooms, such as the 26-seat Wedmore Boardroom have their own racks containing the equipment for dedicated functions in that room: local audio processing, lighting controls and microphone mixers.

Kelvin Lecture Theatre
The Kelvin Theatre is a spectacular Cuban Mahogany-panelled conference theatre with 451 tiered seats and two balconies. Portraits of eminent electrical engineers, including Kelvin, Voltaire and Faraday, look down from alcoves in the ornate oak-panelled walls, adding an air of elegance and suggestion of studiousness and seriousness to the location.

Dual Christie 16,000 lumen DLP projectors are edge-blended together to light up the largest dnp Supernova projector screen currently installed in Europe; at 7.5 metres. Ten moving head lights and a hazer can add atmosphere to an event and L-Acoustics Kiva line array speakers ensure that every presentation in the theatre is heard clearly in all seats. In addition 5.1 surround sound is available to support cinematic material and ensures that the room can meet all possible event requirements. The stage itself can be extended or additional space can be created at the front of the theatre simply by removing the first rows of seats. The extended stage is used for all IET Engtalks and the President’s Address, plus interesting events such as ‘The World of Wearables’: a tech-style event for IET Young Professionals.

Spencer outlines the philosophy and rationale of the facilities and the way they are used: “We are an organisation devoted to the promotion and thought leadership of core scientific disciplines: our internal events team organises members’ and public meetings and lectures, primarily around the STEM subjects and we attract outside events from leading science and engineering-based companies and universities, like MIT, IBM, Skanska, HS2, BT, Siemens and Schneider Electric, for product launches and corporate events. It is important to be able to offer them the best possible facilities and broadcast-quality connectivity. This includes the ability to present their videos wherever they want, link rooms so that they can stream from one to another, record presentations and stream them to the web.”

Managing all these facilities requires a large team: eight AV technicians support the in-house IT department. “Companies arrive with their own design concepts and, in some cases, with their own production teams. It is important to be able to meet their requirements quickly and efficiently. Whether it’s to record their events, or provide additional internet access for a live gaming convention or hackathon, or to link up to their broadcast facilities,” explains Scott Bacon, one of the AV technicians.

A digital content executive is also part of the team. Her role is essential in supporting visiting organisations, enabling them to promote their brands and messages on the many LCD screens throughout the building through the IPTV system.

“The IET today is much more than a membership body. It is engaged in thought leadership and lobbying the government on issues related to science and engineering. We are on a rolling development plan. And like the IET’s work this process will never be finished.”

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