How MJC played a key role in creating Guidance Note 20

By MJC Event Engineers
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The ornate ceilings that hang above many of the UK’s theatres are often a century or more old, and were built with materials and skills that have largely been forgotten.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2013, after the partial collapse of the Apollo Theatre roof, that the government decided to create formal safety guidelines.

To make sure this was done properly, Westminster Council invited MJC’s Managing Director Mike Jackson to be part of a taskforce, alongside other industry experts. Their goal was simple: Create a set of guidelines that would ensure theatre ceilings would never again pose a risk to the general public.

What are fibrous plaster ceilings?

Made from plaster of Paris, and reinforced by hessian (once called ‘scrim’ by Victorian tradespeople), these ceilings are secured by a timber framework. Above this framework is a void, and then the roof itself.

The initial popularity of this material came during the Victorian era, thanks to its ability to form complex and unusual features, such as niches, cornices and columns. It fell out of use After World War II, and the required construction skills were forgotten except by a small number of professionals. 

Up until Mike got involved, there had been little advice on its upkeep, or methods of survey, in modern times. 

Mike Jackson steps in to fill this void

As part of the taskforce, Mike, along with theatre owners, building professionals and heritage experts, worked hard to establish a set of guidelines to ensure these ceilings could be inspected to a rigorous standard.

This document, known as Guidance Note 20, was published in 2015. And since September 2016, inspection of a venue’s fibrous plaster ceiling is now required before it can receive formal certification that it is safe for public access. 

“The reality is, as the Apollo collapse demonstrated, these old ceilings can pose a risk. The age of the materials, and the sheer number of buildings that have them, means something had to change before another disaster struck,” says Mike. “I’m proud to have played a part in creating the legislation that will ensure the general public, and theatre staff, can now feel safe and reassured the ceilings above their heads is not at risk of collapse.”

MJC theatre roof inspections

The main reason Mike Jackson was hand picked to craft the legislation was his decades of experience working with fibrous plaster ceilings. 

“Myself and my team at MJC have inspected hundreds of theatre ceilings over the years, and we understand better than anybody the importance of conducting a thorough and carful inspection of all the elements,” Mike says. “We also understand the importance of leaving delicate features intact during inspections, and will ensure all parts, including the void and roof itself, fully meet the necessary safety standards.”

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