The right foundations

Atkins | 10 Jul 2009 | Comments

Infrastructure not only serves the basic needs of a city, it informs its character, from Manhattan’s grid-based roads to the Victorian-era sewers running beneath London’s streets. But how can infrastructure define the personality of an event like London 2012?

Infrastructure brings cities to life. Utilities such as drainage, power and water supplies are part of the equation. But so too are roads, railways, public spaces, landscaping and even the pavement. When they work together, these components create something that is far more than the sum of their parts. They create a sense of place.

Atkins is playing a major role in the preparations for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Working with the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), its Delivery Partner and other contractors, a brand new landscape is being created out of an industrial wasteland for London’s Olympic Park. Atkins will also provide hundreds of temporary sporting venues up and down the country.

“We’re the project managers for the preparation of the whole site,” says Mike McNicholas, Atkins project director for London 2012. “This involves working with the contractors to clean up contaminated land and move the old landform into its new shape. We are also infrastructure designers for the northern zones. Our job is to create the platform on which the Games are being built. This includes detailed landscape creation, as well as designing roads and bridges for the north of the park.”

“Almost every conceivable type of infrastructure creation is going on at the Olympic Park,” says John Armitt, chairman of the ODA. This public body is responsible for the new venues and infrastructure being created for the Games, and their use after 2012. “We’re virtually building a small town, from a power station to a medical centre, to apartments, tunnels, locks and sports stadia.

“In order to create the Olympic Park in this particular part of London, we are investing massively in infrastructure,” says Armitt. “The stadia are not the most expensive part of the bill; we’re spending more on infrastructure. This represents an automatic infrastructure legacy for this part of London, in the form of improved communications, rail systems, power systems, roads and bridges. The infrastructure of the four boroughs touched by London 2012 is being massively improved. In effect, 75p out of every £1 that we’re spending is still going to be in use 100 years from now.”

Beyond infrastructure

Major infrastructure projects such as these emphasise the way that engineering is changing. Concrete, steel and calculations are still very much part of the picture. But so is a deeper understanding of the social and aesthetic dimension. Bringing today’s larger-than-life projects to fruition means looking beyond the drawing board.

“We call this ‘development infrastructure’,” says McNicholas. “We came up with that term to describe an integrated approach to the provision of the things that go between the buildings on large-scale projects. In its broader sense, development infrastructure can be physical and social.

“The big challenge is to take quite utilitarian design standards and to make them appropriate to a more local look and feel, to become part of an aesthetic solution,” he says. “Development infrastructure is a fundamental part of the life of a place. It becomes the heart of the social interaction that people have in the public space. It combines engineering with architecture in equal measure.”

The elements of urban design include roads, bridges, landscaping and surface treatments. The detailed configuration of each component and its relative position in the bigger picture determine how a place will look and feel, and how it will be used. Putting it all together is both a science and an art.

“It’s really about emotional intelligence,” says McNicholas. “You have to understand the bigger picture for a masterplan. The engineer needs to have empathy for the social aspect – the aesthetic backed by engineering is really important. It puts us in a different space. It means being led by architects and masterplanners, rather than by processes or very rigid end-user requirements.

“For London 2012, the infrastructure planning is also driven by legacy,” he emphasises. “Virtually everything we do must either have a use after the event itself is over or be built in a temporary way. We have to think about costs, adaptability and design for re-use.”

It’s a question of creating places that are aesthetically pleasing, while using the landscape as a tool for achieving social and environmental goals. It’s a vision that puts sustainability and legacy centre-stage.

“We have set the sustainability bar very high for London 2012, with a series of targets that we want to achieve,” says Armitt. “For example, we set ourselves a target to recycle 90 per cent of the site materials following some early demolition at the Olympic Park. We achieved 95 per cent. It’s a question of raising the bar on what becomes the norm for environmental and sustainable design.

“At the same time, part of our remit is to make sure that everything built and provided as part of the Olympic Park continues to be maintained to a high standard. We want people to want to take advantage of the site after London 2012,” he adds. “We’re trying to create a new place in London that people will want to go to.”

Sufficient resources and budget need to be in place in order to maintain the Olympic Park after London 2012, Armitt argues: “It needs to be open and useable, even if it’s just green space where people can go and hang out on Sunday morning. It requires a realistic and sensible ongoing maintenance budget to ensure that the place is kept in good order. Otherwise, people won’t go there and the area could very rapidly slip backwards.”

“At Atkins,” notes McNicholas, “we’re seeing far more examples where the balance between the environment and the public space is being achieved, especially in northern Europe. It’s about creating a space that is complementary to people’s lifestyles and to function. Infrastructure is part of a holistic package that looks at the bigger picture, supporting cycling and walking, for example. It can be a way of achieving both social and physical wellbeing.”

“The question is: how do you create somewhere new and exciting, somewhere people want to visit but that still belongs to the people living in the local boroughs?” adds Armitt. “We want to produce something that adds to the community.”

Creating new landscapes for new lives has big implications for the people – engineers, planners and architects – whose job it is to breathe life into those projects.

“They have to be technically compliant, but they also need more rounded skills,” he says. “They need to empathise with the other disciplines working on the project and be willing to go the extra mile to achieve real design quality. For example, very little of a civil engineer’s work can be seen by the public. But where it does show, it needs to be part of the public realm, part of the physical architecture of the Olympic Park, for example, or the streetscape.”

No development site is a blank canvas, of course. Brownfield city sites in particular bear a heavy and sometimes hazardous imprint of what has gone before. When shaping a new landscape, experts need to gain a full understanding of the complete site. Detective work is part of the job and remedial action is often required.

“First, we assess what the land has been used for before,” explains McNicholas. “You have to understand what a society and its industry was like to know what might be in the ground. You need to know what regulation was in place. For example, there’s a landfill on the Olympic Park site. We looked at what industries were in the area over the centuries, to get a sense of its history. We found that, in the past, people would use radioactive isotopes in filaments of lamps. There’s a risk that there could be something nasty in the waste and we need to be prepared to deal with that. All of this contributes to the ultimate success or failure of such a major infrastructure project.”

Temporary thinking

Preparations for London 2012 represent one of the largest single mobilisations of people and resources in Britain in the past 60 years. More than nine million visitors are expected to buy tickets for the Games, in which 10,500 Olympic and 4,200 Paralympic athletes will take part. As well as its role in preparing the London site for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Atkins has also won the contract to provide all the engineering design services for the temporary facilities that are needed to stage the Games.

These facilities – of which there are around 100 – are scattered across the country. They include venues at the Olympic Park, up to 15 competition venues along the River Thames and around London, with further venues in Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham and Weymouth. Some 50 non-competition and training venues are also included in the deal.

Creating high-profile temporary infrastructure is familiar territory for Atkins. The company’s portfolio includes civil projects as well as military contracts, such as one with the British Army that includes camps in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Temporary infrastructure projects such as these, believes McNicholas, could lead to new ways of thinking about the built environment.

“It challenges us to do things in a slightly different way. If there’s a shortage of capital in the marketplace post-recession, we’re going to have to look at new ways of doing things. That means adapting more buildings and looking at reduced design life: if the client wants to run a business for ten years, why do you need a building that’s going to last 50?”

Worldwide, the market for development infrastructure remains significant for Atkins, stresses McNicholas: “These massive projects require a broad range of skills brought together very early in the programme. They are complicated and involve environmental skills, sustainability and carbon critical design. They involve waterborne transport, rail transport, utilities, power, water, gas and a comprehensive understanding of cost modelling. Every part of Atkins is involved.”

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