From wild cats in the basement to chandeliers made of whiskey bottles, ANN-MARIE HARDIMAN went to the Old Jameson Distillery to find out about project management at this unique site.
The Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin’s Smithfield is one of the city’s leading tourist attractions, welcoming upwards of 275,000 visitors annually. The road to this extraordinary success has been a long one, starting with the decision in the 1990s to move the smaller visitor centre operation in the Irish Whiskey Corner building to the original distillery building, which dates from the 1700s, and renovate it into a state-of-the-art attraction. General Manager Ray Dempsey has been around for the whole process, and from the very beginning he has employed the services of project manager and building surveyor Krystyna Rawicz. Together, they explained the history of the project, and the extraordinary road to today’s amazing facility.
“The big challenge was to ensure that we retained the authenticity of the building, and preserved the culture and history. We really exhausted all possibilities to get the best possible outcome.”
Shell and core
Production of Jameson Whiskey moved to Co. Cork in 1971 (see panel), but Head Office remained in Smithfield. To entertain trade guests, a small museum was developed in the Irish Whiskey Corner building, formerly across the road from the current site, and at one time adjacent to John Jameson’s winter home. An approach by a tour operator led to the decision to open the premises to the public for tours, and in 1984 they welcomed their first visitors for two tours a day. The original buildings, meanwhile, had fallen into considerable disrepair. Krystyna takes up the story:
“A developer had purchased the derelict buildings here at Smithfield with a view to building Smithfield Village, a mixed-use development of residential, retail and tourism buildings. At the time – this was in the early/mid ‘90s – Smithfield was a very neglected and derelict part of the city. Tourism was quite a big part of the developer’s interest, and discussions were entered into with Irish Distillers about whether they’d be interested in taking a long-term leasehold interest in the space and developing a modern visitor
Ray continues: “The shell and core was delivered to us by the developer, but to get it fitted out required the skills of expert museum designers and contractors, who were UK based, so we realised that we would need a project manager to oversee the process”. From the very beginning it was a complex project, as the fit-out took place almost side by side with the completion of the shell and core, while the developer’s team worked to complete apartment buildings all around them. Krystyna’s task was to take the original, protected structure, and fit it out with modern, high-end equipment, from the commercial kitchen, restaurant and bar areas, to the museum itself. And of course, issues such as access for people with disabilities, health and safety, and the all-important budget, had to be taken into account. Says Ray: “The big challenge was to ensure that we retained the authenticity of the building, and preserved the culture and history. We really exhausted all possibilities to get the best possible outcome.”
And that’s where Krystyna came in: “There had to be some very clever thinking at times. For example, the stone floor, which has now lasted nearly 20 years, is a Liscannor slate floor. The original architect wanted to put in a hammered limestone floor that cost IR£165/m2 and we were told there was no budget available for that and we might have to put in a vinyl floor! We researched very carefully and found a small local supplier – actually a stonemason here in Smithfield – who installed the limestone for about IR£60/m2. There were some challenges around the fact that he was a small guy and he did it slower than a bigger company would have done, but every project we’ve done, we’ve had to find ways to get around the budgetary restrictions to find something that works for this space, which is a showcase for Irish Distillers. Every step of the way there have been different specialist things”.
Tourism was quite a big part of the developer’s interest, and discussions were entered into with Irish Distillers about whether they’d be interested in taking a long-term leasehold interest in the space and developing a modern visitor facility.
Taking it to the next level
In 2007, the decision was made to carry out another major renovation, with several functions. The restaurant space was moved and reconfigured to allow more space for private banqueting, and to place the restaurant more directly in the path of customers finishing the tour. There was also a complete upgrade of the audiovisual aspect of the tour, as well as some more unusual, specialist jobs. Ray explains:
“The brick structures in the subfloor area of reception are visible under the flooring, but they were originally displayed within a railing. We got rid of the railings and inserted a glass floor, which allowed us to gain more capacity in our reception area”.
“That required quite a lot of research,” adds Krystyna. “It’s an important issue because people are wary of walking on glass, so it had to be a type of glass that people would be comfortable to walk across. And it had to comply with regulations.”
All of these jobs demonstrate the value of having a project manager on board: knowing enough to know where the answers lie and then finding the right person to deliver at the right cost.
“Anybody can bring in specialists right, left and centre,” says Krystyna, “but the key is to keep the team small and tight and only pull in people to do specific things that need to be done.”
“I think the value of having Krystyna on board in that capacity is her knowledge through the years,” says Ray. “Because she can remember what it was like pre ‘97, so when we go to do something that knowledge is invaluable. But also, Krystyna has learned to understand how the company operates, so if we’re looking to achieve a particular look, we don’t have to spend time articulating exactly what we need, as you might with a new agency.
“We’ve been involved in everything, from the smallest things to the big projects. I remember we had a problem when the museum first opened with wild cats in the basement!”
Having that lifetime relationship built on understanding what we need to operate and what complements the existing build is really important. “Take, for example, the auditorium seats. They have sat millions of people over the years and they have become worn, so we wanted to upgrade them. The big ask is where do I find the people who do this sort of thing? Because you don’t get this in the yellow pages, you know? How are they best to serve the purpose that we want them for and accommodate wheelchair access, fire safety regulations? What way do they come? Is it fixed or Pullman style seating? With arms, without arms? One phone call to Krystyna gets it all sorted for me, even down to the colour palette.”
For Krystyna, the relationship of trust is also vital. “A lot of things we’ve worked on over the years have been very slow. We might have been working on them and talking about them for a number of years before they actually came to fruition. We’ve a couple of projects like that at the moment that are on the back burner and that we’ve done a lot of preliminary work on, such as obtaining planning permission. If the client decides to move on it then we can move very quickly. We have the sort of relationship where that’s ok.”
All of this means that Krystyna feels quite an emotional bond to the distillery site, and recalls her children, now grown up, playing on the site and sitting in diggers at the end of the working day. Also, some of the tasks she’s had to deal with have been unusual to say the least. “We’ve been involved in everything, from the smallest things to the big projects. I remember we had a problem when the museum first opened with wild cats in the basement!” Ray sums up the value of project management for him: “Legislation is continuously changing. My responsibility is to run a visitor centre, to welcome the public in. It’s a building that’s going to reflect the quality of Jameson as a brand, so I can ill afford to have a building that isn’t to the spec or to the standard that I have a responsibility to maintain. But how am I meant to know what that is? I absolutely need professional advice from the very beginning. Krystyna and I sit down and go through the issues, and my eyes would be opened to industry regulations in terms of construction, planning, health and safety. You’ve got to make sure you invest in the right advice to get it right first time.”
The original tour at the Irish Whiskey Corner reached maximum capacity at 44,000 visitors per annum. The new site opened in November 1997, and in 1998 they welcomed 48,000 visitors. In 1999, this rose to 125,000, and has increased steadily to the present footfall of 275,000 a year. Visitors can take the tour, which now includes a comparative taste test of Irish, Scotch and American whiskeys, followed by a drink at the bar, or a bite to eat in the restaurant.
Krystyna is Managing Director of Krystyna Rawicz & Associates Project Managers and Building Surveyors, based in Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. She is also Chair of the Society’s Project Management Group. “We’re a fairly new group in the Society – we’ve only been established for two years, although there have always been project managers within the Society. This is a place where project managers can share their experience and grow the profession. From the Society’s point of view, we want to enhance the project manager’s role.”
Distilling the story of Irish whiskey
John Jameson founded his distillery in Smithfield in 1780, and from 1780 to 1971 Jameson whiskey was produced there. As the city began to engulf the area, it was decided either to renovate the Smithfield site or move, not least because the two main ingredients in Irish whiskey, barley and water, were not accessible there. A site in Midleton in Co. Cork was found, with an excellent water source, and in the heartland of Ireland’s rich barley-growing region, so the distillery in Smithfield closed down and operations moved to Cork. That is where all Jameson Irish Whiskey is made today, in one single distillery for international distribution.
Ann-Marie is a journalist and sub-editor with
Think Media Ltd.