Between sand and sea

Atkins | 16 Jan 2010 | Comments

The Asian Beach Games hold pride of place in the Asian sporting calendar and Atkins has a big part to play in their success. There are only a few small challenges: the Games are due to take place in a totally undeveloped area down the coast from Muscat in Oman, there are hopes for a boost to local tourism, and it takes place between sand and the open sea, with a deadline that’s fixed in stone.

Imagine you’re hosting an event. It’s a major global sporting event and you expect around 5,000 athletes and officials from around 45 countries to take part, with an estimated 15,000 visitors looking on. Form and function, sustainability, ecology and legacy, security, all of these will no doubt be at the forefront of your mind as you make your plans. Now imagine the event takes place between sand and the sea, in an area with minimal infrastructure but with high ambitions for the future. It’s just the kind of challenge that architects and engineers love.

“Oman hasn’t hosted any event like this before,” says Georges Chahine, project manager for Atkins, discussing the Asian Beach Games (ABG). The event will be held on a 100-hectare coastal site near Muscat in Oman in December 2010. Atkins is the lead consultant providing master planning, all architectural and engineering design and construction supervision – “and we’re working day and night to meet the very tight schedule,” Chahine adds.

Beyond 2010

It’s no exaggeration: unlike the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which has a fairly long lead time, the ABG development schedule runs for just under two years. And it’s no small order: construction for the event will include sports fields, grandstands, medical facilities and retail areas, hotels and a marina, plus landscaping and site infrastructure. Pontoons, berths, access walkways and slipways, and an artificial beach will also be joining the marina. At the moment, there is space for 100 vessel berths, but on completion that number will rise to 300.

All of this will set the stage for such diverse sporting events as beach sepak takraw (“kick volleyball”), Kabbadi, Jet Ski racing and marathon swimming. But planning for these events does not end with December 2010.

“The key to this project is legacy,” says Felicity O’Neill, senior landscape architect for Atkins. “For example, the Arrival Plaza for the ABG will be used as a celebratory space for the event, but when it’s all over, the space will be transformed into a car park for hotel guests.”

While structures such as the marina and two 500-bed hotels will provide obvious long term tourism benefits for this fledgling holiday resort, what about the grandstands, sports fields, offices and medical facilities? What’s their legacy agenda?

“These will be offered to a selection of bidders from all over the world looking for structures for their own sporting events,” says Chahine. “The structures will be installed for the ABG, maintained and then removed once the event is over, to be re-used elsewhere.”

This recycling strategy is vital for environmental sustainability, according to Chahine. Once dismantled, this temporary stock can be moved to any country in the world with relative ease. And it needn’t stop there, he adds: after structures have gone to their new home, they can be re-used yet again – the shelf life of some of these temporary structures “can stretch to 20 years”, says Chahine.

Clever re-use of buildings is just one part of the story. Designing the infrastructure to blend in with the surrounding region is another way to ensure that the development will be enjoyed for future generations.

“We took inspiration from traditional Omani agricultural landscaping,” says O’Neill, who is in favour of re-interpreting the past in a contemporary way. “Effort has been given to locally sourcing materials, which helps in reducing the project’s carbon footprint.”

As well as drawing on local materials, such as local stone for the entry boulevard, O’Neill and her colleagues sought out traditional engineering techniques, such as the Falaj. This is an underground water management system that brings potable water straight to where it is needed, providing a reliable supply of drinking water and irrigation, which is a vital strategy in drier regions. In the context of the ABG, water flowing through the entrance boulevard not only looks good, but is also a way of giving the project a local site context.

For O’Neill, local solutions are not only aesthetically pleasing but also practical: “The client wanted to showcase Oman and for this the natural landscape is important,” she says. “The easiest way to show Muscat is through endemic plant species.”

The varieties of plant life chosen are local blooms, require little water and will need minimal maintenance once the Games are over. Atkins’ experience in the master planning of the Oman Botanic Gardens offered helpful guidance. It meant that the horticulturists working on the ABG were lucky enough to have access to good contacts when it came to sourcing local plant species.

Sustainable seaside strategies

The development’s proximity to the sea only adds to the challenge. Rising tidal waves, floods and cyclones in Asia have dominated headlines in recent years, which meant Atkins has to ensure that this project will not damage these already fragile seas. An Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was conducted, in anticipation of the Environmental Permit required from the Ministry of Environment.

“During the EIA, we were able to study sea levels and the impact of any disturbance to the marine environment,” says Alex To, marine engineer with Atkins. This was essential in the planning for the marina, which will form the centrepiece of the development. Its breakwaters are not without environmental issues.

“Any obstruction in the sea can disturb sediment transport,” explains To. “Drift from silt, sand and other coastal material moves predominantly from east to west across the littoral drift zone on site. However, if this pattern is disturbed, it can lead to beach erosion.”

Fragile ecosystems take a long time to recover if they are damaged by erosion and it is not unknown for entire fishing villages to be completely wiped out by coastal abrasion. At the same time, man made breakwaters such as heavy sea walls, weather-beaten wooden groynes and other similar coastal structures can become dumping grounds for these shifting sands.

Effective coastal engineering combats erosion by working with nature instead of against it: “We need to understand the sediment movements before we can build a marine based structure,” says To. He and his colleagues chose strategically placed rock as the best option for coastal defence, as they are aesthetically appealing and have the added benefit of absorbing energy from the waves. It’s an efficient, cost-effective option, though it does need to be monitored.

“The eastern breakwater will accumulate sediment material over time,” says To, “but this piled material can be re-used or re-charged into eroded areas, creating the natural balance.”

Of course, breakwaters themselves can be unpopular with hotel guests, who might consider any marine engineering to be an unpleasant visual disruption to the sea view. One way to make the breakwaters blend in more effectively is by increasing their width instead of raising them above sea level. And even if the crest of the breakwater is still visible, this can be reduced by using materials such as impermeable sand and the latest technology in concrete breakwater armouring.

This was used in Atkins’ work on the artificial islands created for developments like The Oman Wave Development, which defended against waves up to five metres in height.

It’s yet another example of the complexities involved in bringing this event to fruition. And with each challenge, everyone involved has to remember that their work doesn’t end when the closing ceremonies are over. The ABG is scheduled to last for just eight days but the work of around 100 Atkins professionals including ecologists, architects, structural engineers, urban planners and geologists, has been planned to last for much longer.

Chahine, O’Neill and To are all enthusiastic for the site’s reincarnation, but can developments initially built around a one off event really adapt to a new and different use in the long term?

“This is being built for life,” says To. “We have been given a unique opportunity to develop a relatively underused site to its full potential. We’re all looking beyond 2010. We’re looking to the future.”

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