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Here today, gone tomorrow

Atkins | 17 Jan 2010 | Comments

In 2012, London will play host to 14,700 athletes participating in 46 Olympic and Paralympic sports across 55 venues. More than nine million tickets will be sold. And there will need to be enough facilities, storage and seating to house them all.

In 2012, athletes from 205 nations will converge on London for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, each hoping to win a place on the podium.

“When you consider the detail of what is needed for the Games you start to understand the challenge. For example we need four flags at every venue for each country, in case their athletes come first, second and third, and a spare,” notes Steve Cardwell, Atkins project manager for London 2012. “That’s a lot of flags.”

And with that many flags, you’ll need somewhere to put them all. But no-one wants to build a permanent facility just to store flags. This is just one of the many reasons that temporary facilities – the technical term is “overlay” – will play a defining part in London 2012.

Flag storage is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw. London 2012 will incorporate an unprecedented amount of overlay, with all venues including elements of temporary facilities, including entire competition venues for sports such as beach volleyball and hockey, training facilities and the full raft of operational functions needed to make London 2012 work.

“Overlay is about delivering those additional requirements into venues to make them work for London 2012, because we have a high proportion of temporary venues and not all existing venues would work for us as they stand today,” explains James Bulley, director of venues and infrastructure for LOCOG, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Atkins is working in partnership with LOCOG and architects Populous (formerly HOK Sport) to deliver the temporary overlay that will bring London 2012 to life. As the official engineering design services provider, Atkins has already been preparing sites for the Games.

“But we’ve now moved beyond infrastructure and are focusing on buildings and temporary overlay,” says Mike McNicholas, Atkins project director for London 2012. “A new journey is starting.”

The task at hand

The scope of the task is huge. Temporary overlay embraces everything from places to store flags, to the construction of entire venues, all of which must be dismantled after London 2012 is finished. At Horse Guards Parade in London’s Westminster, for example, overlay includes the provision of a 15,000-seat complex for the beach volleyball competition; at historic Greenwich Park to the south east of the capital, it includes a 23,000-seat arena for equestrian events.

“The overlay itself includes everything from modular buildings and tents through to drainage and power distribution systems. At Greenwich Park, for example, we will need to provide stabling for the horses,” explains Cardwell.

Finding the right model for temporary overlay is essential: “We’re used to designing buildings that last for 60 years or more,” observes Julian Sutherland, Atkins director for sustainable development. “When you’re designing something to last 77 days, it’s a completely different ball game.”

Delivering temporary facilities on this scale presents two key challenges. First: find a way to blend a large number of potentially disparate temporary elements in order to achieve a distinctive look and feel. Second: limit the overall environmental impact of these facilities. And with London 2012’s commitment to making the Olympic and Paralympic Games as sustainable as possible, the pressure is mounting.

“The ambition for the project is zero waste to landfill,” emphasises Sutherland. “Every single thing that you can imagine in the overlay has got to find another home.”

Atkins is addressing the sustainability strategy in several ways. One of these is fairly straightforward: don’t build from scratch when you can hire suitable existing portable buildings and equipment.

“One of the principal elements of overlay is the seating stands and there’s a very well established rental market for these,” says Cardwell. “The same applies to tents and modular buildings. LOCOG has been engaging with the rental market and there’s a real appetite to be involved.”

From the ground up

The majority of what can’t be hired must be built, but creating tailor-made temporary overlay presents a potentially far greater sustainability challenge. Many building materials don’t yet have an established secondary market and suppliers are unwilling to assume responsibility for products after they’ve left the factory gates. That’s got to change, argues Atkins’ Julian Sutherland.

“Suppliers don’t take responsibility for the lifecycle of products because they have no interest in the final use. Right now, there aren’t that many return-to-supplier arrangements for building materials,” he says. “The plasterboard sector has figured out what to do with returned and recycled plasterboard, but not everyone does.”

Most of the embodied energy in building materials comes from burning oil, gas and coal, which in turn produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Embodied energy may be an abstract concept for some, but the amount of energy embodied in common materials cannot be denied.

To put it into perspective: Usain Bolt would have to repeat his record-breaking 100-metre sprint more than 2,000 times in order to generate the amount of energy used to make a single door handle.

Temporary guidance

Sustainable sourcing of temporary materials is a challenging area. What’s needed is a hierarchy of sustainable materials and a clear vision of what will happen to it all after the last athletes and spectators have gone home.

To address this need, a Temporary Materials Handbook is in development which aims to provide guidance to the client, design and procurement teams on how to manage the sustainability impacts of materials selection.

The Handbook will focus on how to select materials with the following hierarchy of objectives in mind:

  • Zero waste to landfill
  • Protect human health and the environment
  • Minimise embodied energy

Developed in collaboration with Atkins, it will be fully rolled out to temporary venues and overlay design teams during 2010.
Which materials offer the most sustainable options?

“The classic one is timber,” says Sutherland. “It’s easy to work, reasonably strong and readily recyclable – the market is crying out for it. Normally, you go to a lot of trouble to treat timber so that it’s weatherproof and doesn’t degrade. But if it’s only going to be in place for 77 days, why not leave it raw? It’s actually easier to take away and recycle if there is nothing on it.”

Jeff Keas is principal architect with Populous, the firm working with LOCOG on temporary overlay for London 2012. The firm is also keen to explore the potential of timber in this context. Populous is a global design practice that specialises in creating environments that draw people and communities together for unforgettable experiences. It is also the official architectural and overlay provider for the London 2012 Games.

“When we start looking at materials, first and foremost timber comes to mind. Not only because it’s sustainable, but also because it’s a more palatable material, something that’s just a bit more friendly to the general spectator,” says Keas.

Together, Atkins and Populous are creating a “kit of parts” – elements that pass the sustainability test and that can be brought together to create seamless overlay. The kit will include everything from seating stands to tents and portable buildings.

“Suppliers offer a broadly similar range of parts,” says Keas. “We’re challenging them to use 2012 as a launching pad for a new look. We’ll also be challenging them on sustainability and environmental aspects. These parts must have a life after 2012.”

The aim is to create a single look and feel across all venues: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the Olympic Park or at Wimbledon: you will know you are at the London 2012 Games,” emphasises Keas. “We will do this in the way architects typically do: we will use scale, we will use materials, we will use components.”

There’s far more to creating a venue for the Games – even a temporary one – than simply providing places for people to sit and watch. The ability to respond architecturally to the uniqueness of each site is critical.

“If you look at Greenwich Park, there’s the axis that Sir Christopher Wren put into place. We’re showcasing that,” says Keas. “There’s seating on three sides of the arena and it faces back towards the Queen’s House and the colonnade, emphasising the axis all the way from the Thames up to the Greenwich Observatory. And because it’s a World Heritage Site, we’ve placed the arena where it will minimise disturbance.”

One of the key benefits of using temporary overlay for London 2012 is that it allows events to be staged in locations where building permanent legacy facilities would be out of the question. With venues such as Greenwich Park, Horse Guards Parade and Wimbledon on the cards, there’ll be a uniquely British flavour to London 2012.

“Our challenge will be when we go out to venues such as Hadleigh Farm and Eton Dorney,” says Keas. “How can we make these look and feel essentially British? It’s not about breaking the bank.”

The approaches to temporary overlay now being developed could have implications beyond 2012. What’s becoming increasingly clear is that with thought and effort, it’s possible to deliver sustainable, high-quality temporary facilities for large-scale events, with no risk of creating permanent white elephants.

“We’re at the very beginning of the next generation of overlay,” believes Keas. “We can’t always rely on the way things were done in the past. That’s where I think London 2012 will be different. It will encourage other cities in the future to look at the overlay in a different way. Don’t just grab the kit of parts that’s always been used and roll it out. It’s time to rethink.”

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