How They Built the Sydney Opera House

Written by LetsBuild

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I really have to get this out of my system! When the Sydney Opera House first went up it was described as being like “a sailing ship running before the wind with all sails hoisted”. I never could see that and have, more recently, noticed that they have stopped giving it that description! It is iconic, I have to agree, but I still don’t like it!


The Sydney Opera House actually went up even more slowly than usual compared to other public-sector inspired edifices; 1959 to 1973! Mind you, that was mainly because the ”building” got added to as they went along! It ended up with eight of them, but all we are interested in here is the one (although there are actually two) that give the iconic stature.

Guess how they started off. You got it! They dug some holes for the piles, 588 of them, that went down 25m below sea level and flopped concrete down them. On top of those went the concrete floor slab. Next they cast the concrete Podium columns and it was at this point that problems really started! The original columns were belatedly realised not to be strong enough to support the roof! Down they came; back to the drawing board and the next version of them went up!

Now at this point it should be commented that there was a very strange situation with this building. The design team were hired and fired and re-hired and re-fired! On top of that, just to make it all worse, the client kept changing their mind about what was required! The support columns being wrong weren’t the first “firing”.

Also Read: How They Built Venice

Next was the roof. It took them from 1957 until 1963 to decide on the design of that! The main problem was structural stability because not only had the roof trusses to carry a weird shaped roof, they also had to withstand the extreme weather conditions of the Pacific typhoons. Then they couldn’t be too heavy for the columns to carry. It was the shell ribs which were the problem because each one had to be different due to the final roof shape. That made manufacture extremely expensive and prohibitive for most suggestions.

The solution eventually settled for was so obvious it makes one shake one’s head! To make it all a bit easier to build they settled for having both sides of the roof ridge the same! They ended up being precast and factory made. There were 2,400 of these followed by 4,000 precast concrete roof panels which were fixed to them.

After those they fixed what we see today. It doesn’t really show on the photos we usually see of the Sydney Opera House, but the roofs are glazed ceramic tiles! There are 1,056,006 tiles in two colours: glossy white and matte cream.

That pretty well just left the interior to be sorted and fitted out. Again, they kept changing their minds! Originally the main hall was to accommodate 2,000 spectators but got redesigned to seat 3,000. The outcomeis, apparently, that the acoustics aren’t too good and bad for the ears of the orchestra musicians!

Formal completion was in 1973 when it should have been in January 1963! Just a 10 year over-run! The original budget for the scheme was just $7 million and it ended up costing $102 million. 1,457% over budget!

Find here: How they built the Golden Gate Bridge

Today the Sydney Opera house has about 3 million visitors a year, is an iconic building and is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Personally I still don’t like it and don’t think it is something construction should be proud of! The lads just kept getting messed about by the client and designers changing their minds!