The invisible essentials

Atkins | 17 Jan 2010 | Comments

The utilities infrastructure is the circulatory system of the urban environment and vital to any major infrastructure project. And yet, if it’s handled properly, there’s a good chance no-one will notice it at all, points out Simon Wright, director of infrastructure and utilities with the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA).

Most people don’t think about utilities infrastructure unless something goes wrong. But with 10,500 Olympic athletes, 4,200 Paralympic athletes and more than nine million ticket holders anticipated for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there’s no room for error when it comes to water and power in the Olympic Park.

The original site chosen for the Olympic Park included a complex infrastructure of existing utilities, including, gas, water, electricity, telecoms cables and sewers. As the official engineering design services provider for the London 2012 Games, Atkins has been working closely with the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and many of the commercial partners involved, on the engineering design of the utilities infrastructure networks within the Olympic Park.

How do you convert a network of existing utilities, one that has been cobbled together over decades – if not centuries – into a lean, clean, well-functioning machine in time for London 2012? Simon Wright, director of infrastructure and utilities with the ODA, offers an insider’s view on the unique challenges and opportunities involved in this ever-evolving story.

How does this compare to the major infrastructure and utilities projects you’ve handled in the past?

This job is completely different. It’s on a much faster track than most and we’ve tried to do many things simultaneously. Normally, you would begin with the earthworks followed by the utilities and then the roads and so on, but in this case we’ve done much of it in parallel. This has been quite challenging in terms of design and construction integration. Venues are due to be set up at the same time or within a few months of each other, and the utilities network has to accommodate them all across a number of zones and corridors. Compared to most developments sites, this has been on a very fast track with a lot of contractors needing to access the same small bit of territory.

With so many commercial partners involved, and given the scale of the Olympic Park, what kind of co-ordination and forward planning is involved in the process?

The Olympic Park site is a big area, but when you get down to it and try to work within it, it hasn’t got much space to spare. Every bit of it is being used and everybody wants to get on to this one bit of land. It’s a question of working out exactly how and when.

We also have a principal contractor on each part, so by definition, every bit is under someone’s control and these things swap back and forth as the project progresses. We have to manage these hand-offs from one contractor to another along the way, and this could have a knock-on effect if not handled with great care.

We have to anticipate and manage all possibilities. For example, our top priority is health and safety. Where you have contractors very closely spaced, as is the case on the Olympic Park, the challenge is to manage that interaction very carefully and make sure everyone understands their territory. It’s all fenced out and access controlled, in order to ensure that operations do not clash.

Has this been your greatest challenge, managing the organisations involved?

That has been a major task, but the biggest challenge goes back a bit earlier than that, to be honest, back to when we decided to seek private sector investment in the Olympic Park. The challenge for us on the utilities side was to find ways to get the same outcome with less public investment. Finding ways to attract more private sector investment was very important.

I don’t think anybody’s succeeded in achieving the kind of private investment on a major infrastructure project, in terms of concessions, that we have with London 2012. You would have to go a long way to find a similar scale of operation as we have here.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing of course. We sought investment on the utilities side early on, setting off on a “multi-utility” route. We tendered all utilities in one integrated package (covering Design, Build, Own and Operate). We had some offers in, but we didn’t feel any offered value for money at that stage, so we changed our approach. Thankfully, we had planned for this and allowed enough time to go back and reorganise the procurement packages. We split it into more packages and tendered things separately.

As a result, we’ve been able to secure appropriate levels of private sector investment in the Olympic Park and to get these concession contracts into place on time. That’s when the complicated management aspect began – we had to get them all co-operating and collaborating. It takes time to attract investment and then get it locked down, because these are legally complex. And for each concession that was established, you have a slightly different contractual arrangement because that firm owns the asset as they build it.

It’s not the same as paying someone to install some works. You have to treat them more as a partner.

Ultimately, the challenge, as always, is time. You need time to secure the targeted private sector income, which we’ve succeeded in doing, and then to get them all working together, even where different objectives have emerged among concessionaires. After all, they each have a business to protect and business objectives to meet. And making sure that everyone is working towards the same goal takes time.

Where does legacy fit into the story?

We’ve always known that this wasn’t just about getting a good deal for London 2012 – though that is a major part of it. This project is about legacy as well and the key is to make it work for both. We have to be certain that the capacity, layouts and contracts we establish work for both London 2012 and for legacy, without wasting investment. This can be very difficult because you may have a concession contractor operating during London 2012 and then face quite different circumstances in legacy.

From a utilities perspective, for example, much of the infrastructure plans have to reflect what will happen once London 2012 is over. For example, electricity demand in the Olympic Park is predicted to peak during the London 2012 Games. It will then tend to fall away quite significantly. Anyone working on utilities for the London 2012 Games has to understand both the Olympic Park requirements and what needs to happen in legacy.

What about milestones? Where are we now and what can we expect to see over the next six months?

The next six months will be very interesting, because by the middle of 2010, we expect to have more or less finished all of the utilities work on the Olympic Park. For example, the Primary Electrical Substation was completed recently and this was a major milestone – it was also the first building we commissioned. The 11kv power network has also gone live, which means we can start supplying electricity to the Olympic Park.

In the next few months, we will also complete the first stages of the Energy Centre, which includes a combined cooling heat and power (CCHP) plant to capture the heat generated by electricity production, so we’ll have hot water flowing to the venues. Similarly, the sewerage system and pumping station will be completed. I expect we’ll begin to see all of this hard work really pay off in the next six months.

Where does sustainability fit into the equation? Given the overlap of infrastructure and utilities, there must be cohesion between the two if they are going to meet any sustainability agenda.

I think we have achieved a significant step forward in this area, especially when you consider the scale of the energy efficiency requirements for the Olympic Park. We have a target of 50 per cent overall reduction in carbon emissions once we reach post-London 2012 legacy. We will achieve that through various means, including the CCHP plant, which uses biomass boilers, and efficient conversion using on-site energy generation, which reduces distribution losses.

We also will have efficient buildings using a three-pronged lean, mean and green assault on carbon. This includes efficient building envelopes that consume less energy and BREEAM “Excellent” ratings on all venues as the ultimate target. In fact, we developed a new BREEAM methodology for large sports venues with BRE just for this purpose.

In terms of carbon efficiency, the work being done on London 2012 is unusual in London. Many things have been discussed in the past, but not many have been delivered in this way, certainly not to this scale, with a large CCHP and heating networks in place for the legacy developers to hook into. We can also serve off site developments with heating because the boundaries of the Olympic Park are not limiting in terms of the heating networks.

Is this model transferable? Do you think this is a good example of what could be done elsewhere?

I think the sustainability story and the Energy Centre are important, and I hope they will gain some recognition as models that could be used elsewhere, but it’s difficult to say.

As for the overall model we’re using, we have particular circumstances that have helped us a lot. For example, it takes significant investment in order for this to happen on this scale, in the time we have. And while we have attracted private sector investment, there has also been very large public sector investment in this project and this must not be forgotten.

We have reasonably guaranteed demands on a known timescale within the Olympic Park and Village. Often the problem for investors is that there is no certainty about the rate of take-up of land and occupancy even where there is a large area to be developed. It becomes uncertain and risky to predict demand, and it’s not a readily fundable model because there are no guarantees on the demand side so the business model is more difficult.

In the Olympic Park, the private sector has been able to invest because there is enough of a guarantee of demand. The focus for private sector investors is on three major components: the large venues coming back into public use; the Olympic Village being sold or tenanted; and the Westfield retail development which will be completed before the Games. There are known timelines for these. This is unique to our situation and isn’t likely to be more difficult on other large projects where there is less certain demand at the early stages.

When it comes to utilities, much of the work is hidden from public view. Do you ever wish this kind of work was celebrated a bit more?

With this kind of work, if you get everything in the ground and it works, people tend to forget about it. It’s only when it doesn’t work that people tend to remember you and we don’t want to be remembered for something that didn’t work. My ambition is that no-one has reason to talk about us. Because if that is the case, then we’ve succeeded.

Some people may be disappointed that we do not receive more acknowledgment, but that’s just the way it is. This is a very important industry but it’s not likely to grab public attention very much.

I don’t think many people can claim to have worked on something on this scale. This is very complex project, with a diverse set of ambitions and obligations, from the political to the social. We’re trying to change part of the infrastructure of East London and trying to provide jobs and housing and leisure opportunities. It’s civil engineering and infrastructure, but it’s much more than that. It’s incredibly important we get this right.

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