Refurbishments of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) World War I Gallery, which included stripping out various spaces followed by a fitout, have recently been completed.

Delivered in two stages by Built, all works were carried out in the Orientation, Gallipoli, Western Front, Sinai/Palestine, Legacies and Reflections galleries. These include the provision of new services infrastructure, including a compliant fire safety system, new specialised lighting and the installation of a mechanical system that provides a humidity controlled environment for the exhibition space.

“This project had everything – refurbishment works, a high quality fitout, heritage works, building alterations (through the roof) – and all within a live, operational environment,” says Built senior project manager, Joe Tonkovic.

However, working within a heritage and operational building presented a number of challenges. For instance, Stage 1 works required a new plant room to be built through an opening in the existing heritage copper roof with a sandstone block façade constructed that matched the original heritage façade.

Although the Gosford quarry where the original stone had been excavated 50 years ago was no longer operational, Built was nonetheless able to source and secure matching sandstone from an existing stockpile.

A similar issue arose with the heritage skylights, which had been closed up for some time due to leaking and material degradation, but Built was able to source a new triple glazed system to match the appearance of the original skylights.

Another key challenge faced by the team was working through the existing sandstone façade. Built had initially provided an external scaffold so an opening could be created through the façade, which would allow demolished elements to be removed and new materials to be delivered.

Each heritage sandstone block removed was labelled so they could be returned to their original positions at the end of the project.

An unforeseen problem arose here: the first block removed crumbled because it had been mortar filled from behind. As a result Built had to formulate an alternative solution, which was to access the building via the loading dock on the opposite side of the Memorial.

However, because the Memorial is open to the public 364 days a year, the team could only remove demolished materials only after the Last Post had sounded each evening, and before the Memorial opened the next day.

“To do this, the entire area between our construction zone to the other side of the War Memorial was protected (floors and walls in particular),” explains Tonkovic.

“Each morning all the protection was removed and a detailed clean of the areas was completed before the War Memorial opened to the public at 10am.”

A similar method was employed for the delivery of the new joinery, flooring, lighting and other materials for the Stage 2 fitout, with works commencing early each morning and cleaned up by the nominated opening hour.

It was also important to closely manage the works as the War Memorial is full of uninsurable, one-of-a-kind objects from previous wars. In particular, isolating the fire safety items was a key concern, and AWM would issue a form for an object and insist temporary fire safety equipment was on hand when fire isolation was deemed necessary.

This meant the fire systems had to be reset at the end of each working day to ensure objects were protected while no one was on site.

“It takes a great deal of faith and confidence to hand over arguably the nation’s most iconic, heritage listed building within which resides its ‘soul’. The emotional attachment of Australians to the Australian War Memorial is intense,” says Brendan Nelson, director of the AWM, adding that the building was treated with the respect it deserved throughout both stages of construction.