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Aquatics Centre: The beauty within

The Aquatics Centre will provide an exciting sight to visitors arriving at the Olympic Park. But once inside the true magnificence of its design will become apparent.

Standing at the entrance at the south-east corner of the Olympic Park, the Aquatics Centre will be the first impression of the 2012 Games for many visitors as they approach the main concourse bridge from Stratford International station.

Click here for Aquatics Centre during and after the games

The centre houses two Olympic-size swimming pools and a 25m diving pool. With a 32m overhang over the Plaza and large bridge which is the main pedestrian entrance to the Games, the Aquatics Centre will provide an impressive gateway to the Olympics. What Games visitors will see, however, is something quite different from what will remain after the event. During the 2012 Olympics, Zaha Hadid's core 2,500-seat centre will be supported by temporary seating on either side, which will hold 15,000 extra spectators. Only after 2012 will these wings be removed to reveal a curved wall of glazing and expose the magnificent roof to the outside.

The roof is the jewel in the Aquatics Centre's crown. Spanning more than 100m, supported on just three points, it is a beautiful structure.

"With a long span you usually get continuous support along the supporting ends, but here we had only three points," says Mike King, project director for the centre's engineering designer Arup. "There are large overhangs to each side and it is a freeform shape. We worked with Zaha Hadid, interacting to form an efficient shape. The general form is working to help the roof span the distance efficiently."

The supports take the form of concrete cores: two at the north end and a wall at the south, on which two primary trusses sit. Between the two primary trusses, fan trusses at approximately 9m centres span 115m. These trusses cantilever approximately 32m past the cores. However, there are 27m overhangs in east and west directions.

The 27m overhangs on either side are formed by two inclined arches within the roof structure. The two inclined arches run from the northern cores at one end to the southern wall at the other.
The central fan trusses then tie the bases of the arches together and stop them spreading. The use of the arch also helps give the roof its unusual undulating shape.

The fan trusses used for the roof are huge. At their largest they are 11.5m deep - the height of a three-storey building. This depth can be used to provide some service distribution not visible from the main pool space. This in itself is not unusual, but the depth also allows for walkways which will make maintenance and inspection easier.

"Part of the process is integrating services," explains main contractor Balfour Beatty's project director Ian Carr. "The steel frame will be designed to incorporate gantries and support installation of pods.

The gantries or walkways will be able to be used for maintenance and to inspect the structure. The thinking will also help the design to be buildable in a safe manner."

The services and walkways add to the load on the roof. When you're trying to make a roof span over 100m, every little bit counts and so the design team have been trying to minimise other loadings imposed on the roof as much as they can. "We've been trying to minimise what's in the roof and working with all involved in utilising load allowances efficiently," says King.

"LOCOG has revisited the spec with regards to Olympic Overlay equipment such as camera loadings that have to be hung from the structure which has allowed us to reduce the temporary loading requirements for the Games. This means we have been able to allow for the walkways without designing for extra loading.

"If a roof is only a relatively short span, then you can provide additional load allowance in the design to allow flexibility for adding equipment to the roof without paying a large premium on the structure. However, with a long span, that additional allowance would have a huge effect on the structural material required, and it is therefore crucial to accurately assess all roof loading and use it in the design efficiently."

John Nicholson, ODA project sponsor, says "I am excited about building first and foremost a legacy, both in external form and internal functionality. Our discussions with the local borough, Newham, sharpened our focus on things like legacy maintenance and ensuring that things like the ease of changing a light bulb were not overlooked during design development."

Despite the roof only having three main supports, the foundations for these are far from straightforward. From late 2008 electricity cables will be switched underground into tunnels, so that the overhead power cables and 52 pylons crossing the site can be removed. These "plug" (power lines underground) tunnels run right through the aquatics site.

Some substantial foundations structures are needed to bridge over the tunnels. A 25m-wide, 3m-deep transfer structure is used in one corner of the site where one of the cores comes down on top of a plug tunnel. The piles and foundations will be the first to be built on site, but the roof and the piers that support it will be the first things to be visible.

"Two cores at the north and the south wall will be built first before the pools in order to get the roof up," says King. "We will see the roof standing 15m up, it will look quite exciting."

Balfour Beatty will construct the piles and foundations, backfill and then get a crane mat in so that work on the roof can be started.

Click here for How the roof was made

The extra 15,000 capacity for the Games is provided by two temporary stands which sit either side of the aquatics centre. The wings will be removed as part of Balfour Beatty's works after the Games. When the seats come out, a glazed facade will then be erected to give a legacy facility filled with natural daylight and with views across the park.

The design team have borne in mind the temporary nature of the side structures during design.

They have been designed in standard sections so that there is the potential for the structure to be disassembled after use and elements reused. The facade for these sections is a fabric wrap rather than steel sheeting, again noting their temporary nature.

"The design of the Aquatics Centre is centred on legacy, but we have another 15,000 seats with unobstructed views to accommodate," says King.

"This will be done by two stands that plug in either side. They will be formed in structural steelwork and conventional in terms of members and connections. This is done not only for economy but also so that there is a greater chance of reuse."

Two platforms are created in each wing. On the first platform will be facilities such as toilets and facilities for LOCOG. On the second platform will be the seating for the public. This will be a proprietary system hired for the Games, which again lends itself to reuse.

The roof is steel, but the remainder of the structure is concrete. Despite concrete and steel forming the structure, it will be timber and aluminium that steal the show. Timber is being looked at to clad the bulbous sides and ceiling lining of the centre and the whole new London landmark will be topped off with aluminium.

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