UK: A bite out of Barkers. (1 of 2)

UK: A bite out of Barkers. (1 of 2) - How do you demolish and rebuild a major landmark in a congested area without causing chaos? Malcolm Brown talked to a project manager whose team faced this situation.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How do you demolish and rebuild a major landmark in a congested area without causing chaos? Malcolm Brown talked to a project manager whose team faced this situation.

The cardinal rule in project management, says Ken Holmes, a senior project manager with Project Management International, Britain's biggest independent project management company, is never stop asking questions. No matter how embarrassing it becomes you have to persevere. If you do not, the client may find himself facing even bigger bills than he expected.

Holmes knows what he is talking about. When House of Fraser appointed PMI in 1984 to oversee the complete redevelopment of its Barkers store in London's High Street Kensington, Holmes was not persistent enough with his questions about the old store's boilers. Having ripped them out, he discovered, too late, that they had heated not only Barkers but five of the flats in Kensington Square, behind the store - a matter of no small importance to those who lived in them. Then the engineers found six artesian wells in the boilerhouse which nobody knew anything about.

It was nobody's fault. The project team had had to work blind because there were no building plans available. The next big, unexpected discovery explained why. In the basement Holmes and his colleagues stumbled upon a series of long-forgotten, man-sized safes which contained a cornucopia of Barkers' documents going back to the year dot.

"We asked for the records and they said 'There aren't any' or 'We've lost them'," says Holmes. "Lo and behold, when we searched round and broke open this door and that door, what we were looking for was in there. There were beautiful linen prints of the stonework detail and we found leases which told us about artesian wells and leases which told us about Kensington Square properties."

Barkers' listed art deco frontage, which looms over High Street Kensington, still looks exactly the same as it did in the 1930s, but inside everything has changed. The department store has shrunk to less than a quarter of its original size and the building now rings to the assertive tones of reporters and newspaper executives - the bulk of the old Barkers building is now the headquarters of Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail. Ironically, considering that they are in the communications business, they all live there in splendid, almost hermetically sealed isolation. Strict security precautions mean that newsmen are the only people ever to see the centrepiece of the new building - one of the biggest and most spectacular atriums in Europe.

It was economics that forced the change on Barkers. The prevailing theory, says architectural writer Hugh Pearman, is that department stores operate most efficiently when they offer precisely the minimum space needed to house the "full line" of goods. Smaller and they do not make enough profit, bigger and they waste space.

By the early 1980s Barkers was the living embodiment of that principle. Retailing had shrunk back so that it filled only two floors and the rest was empty. House of Fraser, realising that even the smaller store was still much too big, decided to cut it down even further and redevelop the vacated space and the empty floors above.

The plan was complex. The building would be divided internally into two halves, one of which (the one at the eastern end) would house the new compact department store, the other a shopping arcade. On top of both would be high-class offices. The rationale of the two in one approach was that if House of Fraser ever decided to get rid of the property it would be easier to sell two smaller properties than one big one. The two-halves concept also made it possible for HoF to keep Barkers open throughout the building operation - a key condition of the planning permission. First a temporary Barkers would be constructed in the western half, and then when the new, compact Barkers was completed in the eastern half, the whole store would be decanted into it, leaving the western half itself free for redevelopment.

Derek Hammond, chairman of PMI, likes to think of the project manager as a sort of chief executive of a company set up to conduct a specific business - the project in hand. But this does not go far enough to convey the full flavour of the job. It does not convey the fact that the project manager probably spends more time in down-at-heel Portakabins than in offices and that instead of a suit he is likely to be wearing an anorak and gumboots. The project manager is, in fact, a combination of ringmaster, diplomat and troubleshooter.

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