Inside the Sydney Opera House with building operations manager Dean Jakubowski 

by Sophie Berrill
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Dean Jakubowski

The Sydney Opera House means so much to so many, but what – or who – does it take to maintain this architectural wonder 50 years after its construction? Facility Management asks its building operations manager Dean Jakubowski.

You only have to show most people the iconic shape of the sails and they would instantly recognise the Sydney Opera House. Since the unveiling of the finished structure in 1973, the landmark has come to symbolise not only a vibrant performing arts scene, but modern Australia itself.

Every year, 11 million people visit the precinct and around 1500 performances take place inside the Sydney Opera House.

“The public feels like they own the building,” says the building operations manager Dean Jakubowski.

“They’re part of the building.”

Sydney Opera House at night


Every year, 11 million people visit the Sydney Opera House precinct. Photo: Hamilton Lund.

Perhaps no one is more enmeshed with the fabric of the Opera House than Jakubowski. He has shot fireworks off its peak on New Year’s Eve, helped execute filming on the Forecourt for Jackie Chan, and every five years Jakubowski scales the sails to tap and test 1,056,006 roof tiles.

“It’s quite an aggressive environment with the sea water, wind and whatnot, so we have a detailed preventative maintenance program,” Jakubowski tells Facility Management.

“And one of those checks that we do is to physically inspect each individual tile every five years to ensure that it’s in good condition, there are no hairline cracks or anything like that.”

Each tile is then digitally mapped so that Jakubowski and his team have an ongoing maintenance history of every single one.

“If there’s one loose, then we can put our repair details in that specific one. We can look at how it’s actually performing, and monitor if technology changes over time.”

Sydney Opera House sails

Jakubowski and his team regularly inspect over one million tiles on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Photo: supplied.

‘Operation: Tiles’ occupies about six weeks all up, weather permitting. Then the team is onto abseiling 6223 square metres of topaz-coloured glass, which takes around four weeks to inspect biennially.

This level of attention to detail is necessary when you’re maintaining a World Heritage site. The glazed glass alone was a significant part of the original, competition-winning design for a national opera house at Bennelong Point by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. He had the glass made to order by a French company in a shade unique to Sydney Opera House to create a visual relationship with the surrounding harbour. In the case of the Swedish roof tiles, Utzon envisioned matte and gloss finishes in a chevron pattern to catch the changing lights of the sky.

“It almost looks like it’s alive, [as if] it’s a living structure,” Jakubowski says.

Conserving the Opera House’s heritage while ensuring it’s fit for high use is undoubtedly a huge responsibility, but this doesn’t seem to wear down the spirit of its enthusiastic building operations manager.

“It’s definitely the most important complex structure in Australia, if not the world, so I’m super, super privileged to be able to maintain it.”

Jakubowski joined the Sydney Opera House in 2006, coming onboard as a facilities project manager. Before that, he had been working in London, where he combined tertiary qualifications in FM with experience in the service industry to project manage office fitouts, and then store fitouts for Heritage buildings across Europe.

After five years, Jakubowski missed the sunshine and moved back to Australia to try out some of the larger FM companies. He knew the Sydney Opera House tender was coming up and “begged” his employer at the time  – United Group Services – to go for the contract.

“This was at a time where a lot of buildings, like the Opera House, were managing their facilities [using] construction companies. So it wasn’t really focused on preventative maintenance, and it didn’t really have a structured approach to maintenance as an FM company would,” he says.

Sydney Opera House maintenance

Maintaining the Opera House is a 365-days-a-year job. Photo: supplied.

United Group Services won the contract and Jakubowski continued to work on multiple accounts, but his “heart was always with the Opera House”.

“I’ve always had a passion for facilities management, architecture, the arts, and conservation. You put all those into a blender, it sort of spits out the Opera House.”

In 2011, Jakubowski jumped ship and moved in-house at the Opera House as a contract and events manager.

“It wasn’t actually a typical events management job, it was more about managing the maintenance contract,” he explains.

“It was looking after the building fabric, mechanical services, plumbing and all that sort of jazz, but also looking at the events we put on and making sure that they had no adverse impact on the building fabric.”

Fast forward to 2015 and a position came up as building operations manager. Jakubowski now looks after the day-to-day management of the site: preventative, corrective and reactive maintenance, project support and event support.

“I’ve always had a passion for facilities management, architecture, the arts, and conservation. You put all those into a blender, it sort of spits out the Opera House.”

A total of six supervisors, four help-desk staff, three contract managers and a couple of contracts administrators work on Jakubowski’s team, alongside service people for hydraulics, mechanics, the Building Management Control System (BMCS), electrical, security, lifts and escalators. There can also be up to 120 cleaners on-site at any given time.

“Our vision is to be as bold and inspiring as the Opera House itself and when we get onto a contractor, we make sure they’re onboard with that,” he says.

This manifests in over 5000 individual seat inspections every day. Other times it’s cleaning every bronze surface with olive oil, or meeting with the conservation, events, and food and beverage teams.

Seats

The Sydney Opera House conducts over 5000 individual seat inspections every day. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams.

“Maintaining the Opera House is a 365-days-a-year job and over the course of a year my team responds to up to 63,000 work orders across six theatres, restaurants, the wider precinct and many foyer spaces and back-of-house areas – so every day is different,” Jakubowski says.

There is “no quiet time” and most of the intense work starts after the last show at 11pm and finishes at 7 in the morning. Good Friday is the only day the Opera House is shut for maintenance purposes.

But it’s not just your “typical facilities management”, according to Jakubowski. Another huge part of his role is supporting the needs of the performing artists – from the fridges in their dressing rooms, to how often they need the floor mopped between performances.

“Artists are going to be totally focused on delivering their performance, so it’s up to us to make sure that everything is working and in a way that they can deliver the best of the best,” he says.

For example, Opera Australia takes up residency for a season at a time and it has very specific temperature requirements.

“Because they’re wearing heavy outfits and things like that, they’ll ask for it to be at 21.5 [degrees Celsius],” Jakubowski explains.

“And then we’ll have the Australian Ballet come in for a season directly after, and they’ll ask to have that specific temperature of 22.5 because they need a bit more flexibility in their movement.”

Meanwhile, comedians like it a bit colder to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. But the Concert Hall Grand Organ – the biggest mechanical organ in the world – needs to stay in 55 percent humidity and at a temperature of 22.5 degrees to ensure its pipes don’t fall out of tune.

Concert Hall

Inside the Concert Hall. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams.

“Everybody wants to play the Opera House stage. So if you’re an international artist or if you are an Australian artist, then generally the pinnacle of your career is going to be going out onto that stage. Our role is to ensure that whether you’re a customer, a patron coming in for the first time or a regular, that experience is going to be a magical one,” Jakubowski says.

“Being able to control that and meet your clients’ needs is great, and we’ve got one of the most advanced BMCSs in Australia, so we can certainly do it.”

The new BMCS was introduced in 2017 to monitor and respond to energy, water and indoor environment quality, with upgrades to chillers in the same year. But technological innovation was already built into the foundations of the Sydney Opera House.

In his original plans, Utzon included a world-first seawater cooling system, which – with much maintenance – still powers the Opera House’s main heating and air-conditioning. Its chillers take in cool seawater from Sydney Harbour through 35 kilometres of pipes to efficiently cool the building.

In May, this technology helped the Sydney Opera House win a 6 Star Green Star performance rating by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) – an achievement the GBCA CEO said deserves a “standing ovation”. Other sustainability achievements include diverting around 95 percent of event waste from landfill at the 2022 Vivid LIVE music festival, and investing the Opera House’s 2.4 million electricity spend into wind and solar energy projects.

“We’re still using what the people before us did, which was the forefront of technology then, and we’re taking that and doing that here,” Jakubowski says.

“I feel super privileged to be able to do it.”

For Jakubowski, the Sydney Opera House is a “living, breathing, performing arts venue”. History courses through the building’s pipes, and it is carefully preserved and adapted for the equal pleasure of modern audiences, performers, tourists and locals.

“The building is 50 years old now, and what we want to do is make sure that we’re leaving it in a better state for the next 50 years.”

Sydney Opera House

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

This article originally appeared in the ‘People Issue’ of the Facility Management digital magazine. Grab your free copy here. Existing subscribers can read the magazine here.

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