As we launch a fundraising campaign to support our major new ventilation project, we look back on 150 years of innovative technology and engineering that has kept the air flowing throughout the Hall.

When the Hall first opened in 1871

We were at the forefront of ventilation technology. A mechanical supply of fresh air was propelled through the entire Hall by means of two 6ft diameter fans. These fans were powered by two Easton & Amos Grasshopper direct steam engines, which pumped water up from a ground-well beneath the Hall.

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A direct supply of fresh air could be sent into the Hall without it having to pass through heating chambers, and in addition to this, sprays of water could be used to cool the air when desired. The amount of fresh air supplied by the fans during concerts was equal to 4,000,000 cubic feet per hour.

To heat the air it was blown into three continuous heating chambers; No.1 under the arena, No.2 under the amphitheatre stalls, and No.3 under the main corridor. Within each heating chamber were banks of four inch diameter coiled pipes containing condensed steam supplied by two 30-horse power steam boilers. In total the heating surface in the chambers was equal to 26,000 square feet. A temperature of 56-58 degrees Fahrenheit could easily be maintained during the winter months over the Hall.

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Cross-section of the Hall, Engineering, 1896

After its circulation had been completed, the air escaped through the centre extraction opening provided for this purpose in the apex of the roof (the corona).

20th Century Alterations

In 1921 the two steam powered Grasshopper engines in the basement were abandoned and one was donated to the Science Museum that August. The Hall’s Council minutes record that the well that they drew from was concreted over and that they were discontinued ‘…owing to the level of water in the well falling, owing to a well of lower level being sunk in the Flats opposite.’

In 1949, new boilers were installed at the Hall, changing from coal to oil.

In 1982 the concrete that had filled-in the well was removed exposing a three throw crankshaft and connecting rods descending the well. After being inspected, the well exposed a bed of silt and rubble 10-12 feet from the surface and no sign of a pump barrel was seen. By prodding the bottom surface, an iron bar could be sunk down a further 3 feet below the silt and London clay and into the chalk below.

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Ventilation tunnel with piped and electrical services, 1990

The steam heating boilers in the boiler house (up until the end of 2019) were installed in 1992. Every year as part of their insurance inspections all four boilers were dismantled and all working and critical parts removed and inspected.

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Inside the boiler room

Redevelopment

As part of the Hall’s Major Redevelopment (1996-2003) a fresh air ventilation system with mechanical cooling in summer was introduced to improve audience comfort and to comply with minimum requirements for fresh air supply.

The height and form of the auditorium, together with physical and aesthetic constraints on distribution ductwork, meant that the best solution was an upward displacement system fed from below the seats which would combine maximum efficiency with minimum energy costs. The original ventilation tunnels and shafts were used for ductwork distribution and a new primary distribution duct was created in a tunnel below the auditorium supplied from new plant rooms.

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Research was carried out in 2006 by engineering consultancy King Shaw and a programme of work was undertaken over a five-year period to improve environmental conditions backstage, in the upper parts of the auditorium and function rooms/bars.

In 2011 the decision was made to replace the ageing steam radiators throughout the hall with modern low temperature hot water systems with computer controls.

In late 2013 McAlpine were awarded the contract for the major Hall-wide Steam Heating Project, as the Hall was being heated using a 30 year old steam boiler installation using over 5 miles of original Victorian steam piping. To produce the low temperature hot water systems, in 2013 an Easy Heat was installed in the boiler house to supply heating (80oC) to eighty-three fan coil heating units throughout the hall. The Easy Heat came online in 2015 and the low temperature hot water system used steam from the Hall’s boilers though a plate exchanger. When the boiler house was removed the Easy Heat was removed and the eighty-three heating units around the Hall were connected to the new boiler house in 2019.

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McAlpine compound, north of the Hall, spring 2015

From 25 November 2013 McAlpine began construction of a site compound in the East car park from which they could begin work on the Steam Heating Project in mid-January 2014. Four cabins (double stacked) were erected along with a perimeter hoarding, and a bridge into the Hall for access. At the beginning of March 2014 a temporary site was constructed on the Queen Elizabeth II Steps. This set up was to support an upgrade project of the Halls chilled water infrastructure, which was due completed by June 2014. A temporary storage facility on the gallery level outside door 11 was also constructed to supporting the steam heating project which was expected to be completed by July 2015.

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The boiler room, November 2019

From the end of 2019 the original boiler house and boilers (from 1992) ceased to operate and new ones became active mid-October 2019. 1 November 2019 saw the old boiler house decommissioned before stripping out of the old boilers took place.

2021, a new ventilation project for our 150th year

And now, finally, we reach the point today where we are undertaking a ventilation and roof chillers project. The works will introduce equipment to clean the air and help keep it moving, as well as to pump fresh air into public and backstage parts of the building. Many of these new measures will be automatic; reacting to and acting upon air changes in specific rooms (rather than pumping fresh air into all spaces when one room needs it) and ‘speaking’ to the rest of the equipment so they work together to increase efficiencies.

Help us to reach our target

We are fundraising for the ventilation project for our 150th anniversary, and need £350k to reach our £900k target. Please donate if you can.

Donate now

9 ways you can support us

This extended closure has put the Royal Albert Hall, like many other venues, in a perilous situation.

Without shows on we have lost our major source of funding, but there remains a number of ways you can continue to support the Royal Albert Hall during this crisis:

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