Now that the sports circus has left town, Luke Haynes hears how a flagship venue is being refurbished for use by local West Midlands communities
Project: Sandwell Aquatic Center
Customer: Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council
Project value: £85m
Main contractor: Construction of waters
Type of Contract : NEC
Project start date: fall 2019
Completion date (Phase 3): June 2023
After international sporting events have ended, purpose-built stadiums are often left derelict, with no plans in place for their long-term use. These white elephants are troublesome beasts: they are not always suited to much beyond their original purpose. And they are usually expensive to convert.
Previously, the athletics stadium built for the 2012 London Olympics sat idle for four years before Premier League football club West Ham United finally got the keys. But the cost of converting him to another sport was significant – a whopping £320m was spent, much of it taxpayer funded. Work on the stadium included the construction of a new cantilevered roof and the installation of retractable seats.
Last year, a report by campaign group Engineers Against Poverty criticized the way stadiums in the Brazilian cities of Manaus, Cuiabá, Natal and Brasília were left unoccupied after the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
However, the Sandwell Aquatics Center in Smethwick, west of Birmingham, was the only new venue built specifically for this year’s Commonwealth Games. Organizers also sought to prevent it from becoming a white elephant by developing an adaptable design and aiming to turn it into a community venue. Costing £85m, the building – which hosted swimming and diving events over the summer – has been outfitted with world-class facilities including a 50m swimming pool and tower 10 meter high competitive dive. Five thousand seats, 4,000 of which were temporary, surrounded the main aquatic hall and were packed with cheering spectators who attended some of the centre’s 66 medal events, where the likes of diver Andrea Spendolini-Sirieix and swimmer Adam Peaty won gold medals for the England team.
Wates was the contractor who delivered the center. The project director, Paul Reynolds, recalls the immense challenge of preparing the place for an “immutable” departure. The first phase focused on building facilities for the Games. In the second phase, Wates was responsible for facility management and fit-up work. The third phase, currently underway, transforms it into a community recreation center, carefully tailored to the needs of local residents. A sports hall, two four-court sports halls and a 600-person ‘changing village’ will all be assembled before the facility is handed over to the client, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, next summer.
“The moving floor works in conjunction with hydraulic mechanisms installed in the wet duct with large metal wires which, when contracted, lower the floor accordingly”
Taz Razzaq, Wates
A temporary warm-up pool, located behind the main building, is to be dismantled to make way for the parking of 300 vehicles, while a football pitch and children’s play area will be added, which will be operated by Sandwell Leisure Trust, a social enterprise that has a series of facilities in the area. “It was very clear from the start what we wanted to do with the Aquatics Center so that we could create a lasting legacy after the Games,” says Lisa Cunningham, Wates Preconstruction Manager for the Midlands. “That was reflected in the design team we appointed and the people we brought in to work on the project.
“We didn’t appoint an architect who was trying to recreate a large Olympic arena – we brought in someone who understood how the community would use it after the Games, and then the Commonwealth requirements went alongside that. Community use of the site has always been the end goal.
A great example of the approach is the adaptable features of the Olympic pool: a movable floor and movable ramps allow the length and depth of the pool to be adjusted. This means that it can be divided into separate sections or mini-pools; users of different abilities can then be able to use it at the same time.
Wates Senior Project Manager Taz Razzaq says: “The dams are made from a high density plastic and are 25 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep. To move them, we fill the tubing inside the boom with air, which allows the boom to become a float. It is then pushed into position by a battery-powered pulley cart, made from a combination of non-corrosive aluminum and high-density plastic.
“The moving floor works in conjunction with hydraulic mechanisms installed in the wet duct with large metal wires which, when contracted, lower the floor.”
Razzaq adds that 50% of the bottom of the pool is moveable, with a structural pad separating the two halves. The arrows can be pushed to sit on the end of the floor or on the plinth to create three separate section floors. This will allow the recreation center to run multiple classes for all age groups in the community and provide three streams of income during a single swim session.
Challenging ground conditions
Ironically, for a swimming pool project, a high water table caused one of the main challenges in the first phase of construction. Significant site constraints included a large waste water sewer diversion, poor soil conditions and a 10 meter slope on the site. The ground beneath the Aquatic Center consists of an ash, inert subsoil material, above a layer of non-porous clay. This meant that the ground had perched water.
Due to the wet conditions, a complex dewatering scheme had to be implemented to eliminate saturation and perched water, and to allow safe excavations. The dewatering system used fill wells to circumvent discharge limitations and cement stabilization. Pile foundations were also adopted to improve the ground. A two-level design in the building was also adopted as it worked well with the existing levels of the site.
Arup’s structural engineers had to follow a very specific design for the “pool tanks”, the skeleton of the pools and diving boards, which involved pouring the floor and walls in small sections – starting from the center of each pool and working outward. An adjoining slab could only be poured after a seven-day curing process and adjoining walls within four days. Dimensional accuracy of the length of the Olympic-sized 50 meter pool was essential, with international swimming competition rules only allowing tolerances of up to 10mm on the size and 0mm below.
The pool tank concrete was a C40 mix and retained water rather than waterproofing, while approximately 1,500 tonnes of reinforcement was installed across the project. All forms were either traditional, doka or peri.
Additionally, pile foundations were designed in both compression and tension on the structure to resist hydrostatic uplift resulting from high water table when empty due to high water table. In total, more than 200 piles had to be used on the entire project to create a tie-down structure to resist hydraulic uplift. Tension piles were also constructed at 750mm in diameter – reaching a depth of approximately 20 metres.
Significant work is currently underway to remove the 4,000 seats used during the Games to make way for two large sports halls. Workers from Swiss temporary and specialist structures contractor Nussli dismantle rows of temporary seats positioned next to the swimming pool, before a 96-metre-long and 20-metre-high separation wall is installed to isolate the pool area. While the high water table was one of the most complex technical challenges in the first phase of construction, the wall presents its own challenges when it comes to working at height, says Razzaq.
Although all the medals have been handed out, those involved in the project hope that the Sandwell Aquatics Center will help generate the next generation of star athletes, with its world-class facilities now accessible to young people and coaches. in the region and beyond. Razzaq says coaches from all over the country are already visiting the center to see what it will have to offer.
Reynolds, who has worked in the industry for more than three decades, says, “I’ve probably never worked on a project for which I received so much positive feedback. It makes you extremely proud, the fact that you are looking at everything positively happening in Birmingham at the moment.
“I feel like I played a part in that. So it’s not just about being proud of an aquatic center, it’s about being proud to be part of the whole Games delivery and its wider impact.