The big wins

Atkins | 05 Jun 2008 | Comments

London 2012 aims to be the first sustainable Olympic Games. Head of sustainable development and regeneration at the Olympic Delivery Authority Dan Epstein explains how.

When I started out in this field, I was swimming against the tide. Today, sustainability is on everyone’s agenda. The challenge is finding the best solution, or combination of solutions.

My first job after university was in the Himalayas, where I spent five years as a bioengineer experiencing sustainability in its truest sense. I was helping to repair large landslides along major road corridors into the mountains. This included designing and installing gabion retaining walls, associated drainage works, and growing and planting trees, grasses and shrubs. The road had collapsed twice before it was decided to experiment with new forms of engineering, largely because the impact of the monsoon had been underestimated and some of the engineering solutions were inappropriate in this terrain.

I approached it differently, using local skills, materials and contracting processes. We worked with local community groups to provide them with the necessary skills to manage the planted slopes they helped to create. The emphasis was on appropriate technology, use of local resources, and consideration of local economic and social issues. The principles at the heart of the London 2012 project or any other major project are not so different.

The Olympic Delivery Authority’s (ODA) Sustainable Development Strategy aims to ensure that issues of environmental impact, local economic development and social renewal are considered at every step of the Olympic Park project.

You have to manage something as large and complex as the Olympic development at a programme level, but tailor-make solutions to match specific projects – from the creation of temporary logistics facilities to major venues. You need to take high level ambitions, understand what they mean strategically across the programme, and translate that down to individual projects.

While hundreds of issues fall under the sustainability agenda, the ODA strategy focuses on the areas where we can get the biggest wins. We’ve broken this down into 12 key agendas, six environmental (of which I’m responsible) and six social and economic. We’re confident that achieving these targets will deliver the most sustainable games ever. Sustainability – environmental, social and economic – touches on everything we do, from procurement and the nature of contracts to our attitude to work. Atkins has had a big role in helping us think through all of the issues involved.

What is the environmental focus?

One key area is achieving a reduction in our carbon footprint. We’re working with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the London Development Agency to reduce the footprint for the London 2012 Games by 23 per cent. That figure might sound arbitrary, but it is based on the International Panel on Climate Change recommendation that carbon emissions be cut by 80 per cent by 2050. To achieve that, a 23 per cent reduction will be needed at each Olympic and Paralympic Games up to that date.

The carbon emissions associated with putting on the games has been roughly estimated at between 4-5 million tonnes of carbon, around a third coming from construction. The ODA is therefore working hard to reduce carbon emissions wherever possible by minimising the use of materials on the Park through efficient and elegant design, by specifying recycled products and working closely with BRE ( and WRAP (, who have developed guides to the specification of low impact materials.

We are also very focused on creating a Park that in legacy will use energy efficiently and reduce carbon emissions. As a result, we have invested heavily in creating an Energy Centre that will include combined heat and power capacity, initially running off natural gas and biomass boilers. The centre has been designed to reduce carbon emissions by a minimum of 20 per cent over conventional mains supply.

Another advantage of the system, which will supply heat and electricity to the venues and homes in legacy, is that the engines can be upgraded over time. It could run off a carbon neutral fuel source like gas waste processing, or we could change the generators to run off solid biomass, for example, through gasification. This will be very important in 2016, for example, when all new homes will have to be zero carbon according to new government legislation.

Another major part of our sustainability strategy is management of site-wide non-potable water. We’re looking at the feasibility of using groundwater and wastewater across the Olympic Park for irrigation, and to supply venues. We are also looking at rainwater harvesting systems.

The venues will also make use of low water appliances. In fact, modelling suggests we could achieve a 30 per cent reduction in water consumption through the application of best-in-class water-saving appliances. We aim to deliver another 10 per cent reduction through rainwater harvesting or use of groundwater sources.

We’re currently working with Atkins to develop a sustainable drainage system across the park. This will be an important part of the wider water management process, and essential in ensuring contaminated water doesn’t pollute surrounding areas, and in flood-avoidance.

Atkins has also taken the lead in the enabling works. Over the course of the project, we will have washed almost two million tonnes of contaminated soil. This is being washed using five plants on-site, a process that Atkins have a leading role in managing. Doing this allows 80 per cent of the existing material to be reused, thereby helping to reduce waste and associated impacts.

What about post-2012?

Our success will be measured to a large extent by our ability to deliver a lasting legacy for London and the UK, which is why sustainability is so important. For example, while we require 40 hectares of concourse for the London 2012 Games, the demand in legacy is only about 10 hectares. 30 hectares of concourse therefore needs to be removed after the games in order to create the biggest new park in Britain for 150 years.

We’re working very hard to find a material that is fit for purpose, will enhance the quality of the park during the games, is cost-effective to lay and remove and is sustainable. In the same way, many of the buildings on-site are only temporary, so we want to ensure the cladding used is recyclable. We’re considering various low-impact materials, such as a plant-based material that can be used to provide a wrap around some of our venues. One product we are looking at can be shredded and reused as paper, perhaps for the post-2012 Olympics book.

The biggest sustainability win for the London 2012 Games is that we’ll deliver a well serviced and regenerated site that, over time, will become a new quarter for London. It will be the size of a small town and as well connected as Waterloo. Developing the transport infrastructure, in a place that was very inaccessible, will be essential in ensuring the site is sustainable.

After the London 2012 Games, there will be more than 10,000 new jobs created on the site, 10,000 new homes will be built, and a legacy of world-class venues will remain.

It is a huge economic and social opportunity for an area that was previously neglected, and a great opportunity for UK Plc to show off our ability to deliver a sustainable games fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

Download PDF