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Trooping the beachball colour

Atkins | 15 Jun 2011 | Comments

Every year, visitors from around the world make their way to Horse Guards Parade in London to watch the pageantry of Trooping the Colour. In 2012, millions will gather there to enjoy a very different sight: sun, sand and world-class beach volleyball.

Organisers of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games expect the beach volleyball event to be one of the highlights of the Games, attracting more than 500,000 people during the fortnight and millions more watching on TV.

The fact that it will take place at Horse Guards Parade – and nowhere near a beach – is only one of the challenges.

Horse Guards Parade is a large parade ground that sits just off Whitehall in central London at the heart of HM Government in the UK. Trooping the Colour, the traditional army ceremony organised for the Queen’s official birthday, is taking place there as usual on the first Saturday in June, but six weeks later visitors will discover a 19m high temporary 15,000-seat arena, including two warm-up courts and six practice courts, designed by Atkins and Populous and project-managed by Drivers Jonas Deloitte.

It’s part of the unique approach to the presentation of events at London 2012, taking advantage of some of the city’s most famous landmarks as backdrops for the competition. Nearby St James’s Park, for example, will host training arenas, a broadcast compound, a media centre, a logistics centre, workforce areas and more spectator areas. Similarly, the marathon will pass by Big Ben and Parliament, and the cycling road race will start and finish in front of Buckingham Palace. Preparing these sites for an influx of visitors without creating new permanent structures is one of the more complicated challenges of London 2012.

While the capacity of the Horse Guards Parade arena is 15,000 people at any given time, tickets will be based on sessions (34 of them over 13 days of competition). This means that the total footfall for the event will be up to 510,000. By comparison, the velodrome will see only about 60,000 spectators over the course of London 2012.

Getting to the stage where volleyball players can actually take to the sand is a complex process with countless moving parts. A frantically short timescale, a difficult-to-reach central location, security concerns and the historical significance of the area, which backs on to the home of the British Prime Minister,10 Downing Street, as well as the Ministry of Defence, are only a few of the obstacles.

The plan for the venue includes two main parts: a lower bowl designed as a “theatre in the round” (to create maximum atmosphere around the court); and a three-sided upper bowl that provides views for spectators and cameras across London’s skyline, and sites like Big Ben and the London Eye. The stands reach 62ft (19m) into the air. Unusually for a temporary venue, there are lifts taking spectators to the highest levels. Underneath the sand is a massive steel deck weighing many tonnes to hold everything in check.

Such a large arena – roughly the same size as Wimbledon’s Centre Court – would normally take at least three or four months to complete – perhaps longer. By comparison, other large-scale temporary venues, including the 23,000-seat Greenwich Park arena, which will host the equestrian and modern pentathlon events, and the 30,000-capacity Eton-Dorney centre (rowing and canoeing), will be under construction by mid-April. The Horse Guards site will, though, see smaller, temporary test events in August 2011 to check that everything will work as planned in 2012.

To ensure the arena is finished on time, the plan is to work from 8am until 11pm. If more time is needed, then the planning application allows night-time working as well, providing that it isn’t too noisy.

“There are no extra days in the programme. The only place we can go to find more time is at night,” says Henry Westwood, project engineer at Atkins.

Luckily, noise is not likely to be the sort of problem it would be in other areas of London – although the few affected neighbours are important people. “There are actually not many residences in that area. You are probably a good 100m from the first place someone lives – other than Number 10. [At Buckingham Palace], the Queen is actually one of the closest people,” says Westwood.

Leaving nothing behind

The design for the stadium was created by Populous (the firm of achitects that is also behind the main Olympic stadium) with Atkins providing engineering and technical input – into the structural elements of the site, for example.

Westwood compares the structure to the stands mounted for the British Open golf tournament, although the Horse Guards site is bigger and more lavishly presented. The challenge is to create a sense of permanency from temporary materials – thus realising the environmental advantages of building a stadium that can be substantially reused, while providing something that looks like it belongs in its location. The temporary structure also has to meet the safety standards of a normal large arena.

In addition to the arena itself, the parade ground – which measures 215,000 sq ft, or the equivalent of five football pitches – will also contain spectator areas, warm-up areas, concession stands and toilets, and a mass of cabling, lighting and broadcast equipment.

Since the design was completed, Atkins has successfully submitted the main town planning application to Westminster City Council, together with technical statements covering issues such as lighting, flood risk, noise and disability/inclusion.

Julie Duffus, an environmental consultant with Atkins, submitted the environment statement accompanying the application. She says environmental considerations were vital to the Horse Guards design, in keeping with the green commitments of the Games organisers and Atkins’ own low-carbon philosophy. The project aims to send zero waste to landfill, recycling what cannot be reused or returned to the hire companies.

Part of the commitment of the planning application is to return Horse Guards, St James’s and The Mall to the same condition after the Games as they were in beforehand.

Also as part of the statement, Duffus had to account for carbon emissions from the events, the impact on the cultural heritage (the Parade is Grade I-listed), the ecology, noise and vibration, and socio-economic impact.

Temporary overlay, such as the arena at Horse Guards, will play a key part in achieving all of these goals. Instead of building new material, thereby generating significant emissions and raising questions about how to dispose of that material once London 2012 is complete, temporary overlay represents an elegant solution. Where possible, material was pre-existing and will have a purpose after the Games.

Special sand

The Atkins team is also responsible for supporting London 2012’s procurement – for example, hiring all of the seating and buying in the 4,600 tonnes of sand needed to create the beach itself. The sand is being sourced specially from a British quarry and needs to meet strict competition specifications set by the International Volleyball Federation, which oversees the sport.

Westwood says the sand is “coarse in nature and is designed to drain easily if it rains” (the Olympic competition will continue in all weather). Importing so much sand into the middle of London may seem strange, but in fact it is no different from what has happened at previous Olympics. Even at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where the volleyball took place on Bondi Beach, the existing sand needed to be improved to ensure quality.

Sand isn’t the only concern of course – Atkins also needs to ensure that it liaises with those responsible for the security aspects of the event. The arena bowl will be 20m from Number 10’s back wall. Concession stands and toilets will be even closer. The Cabinet Office, Foreign Office and Scotland Office are within a stone’s throw.

“They are very interested neighbours. For example, we need security clearance for a lot of our contractors and we need to understand if vehicles need to be searched when they come onsite,” Westwood explains. The latter is by no means a minor concern. Approximately 2,300 Heavy Goods Vehicles will need to come into central London to unload equipment and materials as and when they’re required on the site.

At peak, that is 60 vehicles per day, which is equivalent to five per hour during the course of an average 12-hour working cycle. Atkins has to factor in the fact that security checks for each vehicle will add significant time to the process.

“If possible, some works will be conducted out of sight in St James’s Park before Trooping the Colour on 11 June 2011,” says Westwood. “After Trooping the Colour, the focus shifts to constructing the seating bowl on the parade ground, which will need to be built from the inside out towards the road.

“Our proposal is to use The Mall as a large logistics centre for unloading lorries and short-term storage. We can store equipment and materials here only in the short term as you will very quickly run out of space,” he adds. “Just-in-time deliveries will be the key and it may involve an off-site storage area, with deliveries being brought in from there.”

While the preparation work and the events themselves are going on, from mid-June to September, access to Horse Guards Parade and St James’s Park will be restricted to contractors and certain visitors.

The spectators are vital to the atmosphere of the event and are catered for with large TV screens, music between rallies, cheerleaders, many concession stands and entertainments. But the arena has also been designed very much with its TV audience in mind.

“As well as the spectators, millions of people will be watching on television. The broadcast media has a lot of input into the design,” says Westwood.

The Olympic Broadcast Service, the official TV production unit that provides a lion’s share of the pictures, as well as NBC and the BBC, which generate some of their own pictures, have privileged views of the arena and use of the broadcast compound. This unique setting should provide spectators and TV viewers alike with a prime view of Horse Guards as they’ve never seen it before.

Image © Populous

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