The Commonwealth's best swimmers will be competing in Manchester's new aquatics centre in the 2002 games. Its record-breaking four pools in an awkward central site will make a splash with the locals, too.
From the outside, Manchester's newest indoor swimming centre, designed by the acknowledged expert, FaulknerBrowns, shapes up very nicely as a student and community sports facility. It stands conveniently on Oxford Road at the cusp of all three of the city's university campuses. In scale and materials, it matches the modest-scale buildings that border it on three sides with impeccable neighbourliness. It also features continuous eye-level glazing on three sides, allowing passers-by to peer in and inspect the waterworld on offer.

It is only when you walk through reception and into the main pool hall that it hits you: this is something much more than a student and community swimming pool. The hall is a vast volume, rising to an appropriately wave-shaped roof 19 m above the water surface. In length, it stretches 100 m to fit a 50 m championship pool in with a children's leisure pool at one end and a championship diving pool at the other.

Grandly called the Manchester Aquatics Centre, it is a £32.2m elite-standard sports complex that breaks several records.

It is the first facility to be purpose-built for the 17th Commonwealth Games, which Manchester will host in 2002.

It is also the UK's first indoor swimming complex to contain two 50 m pools.

The second 50 m pool is housed in the basement, making the Manchester Aquatics Centre the first double-decker pool complex in the country. This is a training pool with physiotherapy suites alongside it, which together make up the first sports facility to be built as part of the government's newly constituted English Institute of Sport.

For good measure, the pools are fitted with the world's largest area of movable floors and booms, which can be reconfigured to provide a series of pools of varying sizes and depths.

Evidently the client, Manchester City Council, has learned a lesson from nearby Sheffield, which ended up with big problems paying the bills for the World Student Games it staged in 1991. Accordingly, Manchester has taken pains to balance the facilities, funding sources and budget of its new complex. It has provided community facilities to ensure that the complex will earn its keep after the two high-profile weeks of the Commonwealth Games are over, and it has brought in the three universities as joint contributing clients.

The complex, largely paid for by lottery punters through a £22.5m grant from Sport England, also gives some much-needed substance to the government's floundering programme of sport in the community. When the complex was opened last month, Ian McCartney, the chairman of the government's Commonwealth Games taskforce, said that he hoped the combination of community, training and championship facilities would create "the gold medallists of the future".

Not surprisingly, the city council's prudent budgeting has resulted in a less ambitious affair than Sheffield's Ponds Forge swimming complex of 1991, also designed by FaulknerBrowns. Most significantly, Manchester has cut down on the least sustainable element of any championship sports venue: spectator seating. Whereas Ponds Forge has 3500 seats (and the recently completed Olympic pool in Sydney boasts 10 250), Manchester has only 2500 seats, 1000 of which will have to be lashed up temporarily over the leisure pool. What is more, while the leisure pool at Ponds Forge is a grand baroque confection in its own hall, in Manchester it is a modest affair, parked at the foot of the championship pool.

This is where Manchester's investment in movable floors and booms should pay off. Pool managers can convert the diving pool and two 50 m pools into a series of smaller, shallower pools to cater simultaneously for learners, children, "aquarobics" sessions and training, and even dry activities when the floors are raised fully above the water's surface.

With permanent seating on just one side of the pool, Manchester has also been able to save on the roof structure, which spans just 37 m compared with 50 m at Ponds Forge. As FaulknerBrowns' director for the project, Nick Deeming, admits, Manchester's pool hall is "less of a shrine to sporting excellence" than Ponds Forge. It does not equal Sheffield's splendid saddle-shaped roof supported on a latticework of tubular steel.

Manchester's pool hall has delights of its own, however. The asymmetrically vaulted roof ripples upwards over the spectator seating to a high ridge over the pools. It then swoops down in a steep curve to just above head level on the other side. A snaking glass-fibre flume for the leisure pool provides sculptural interest at one end of the hall, while at the other, there is an assembly of diving boards that is a labour of love in fair-faced reinforced concrete cast in situ.

One of the main architectural features of the pool hall is the eye-level glazing, which opens up views of landscaped courtyards and effectively extends the volume of the hall on three sides.

When it comes to detailing, Manchester's complex has few of the exquisite, architect-honed details of Ponds Forge. Manchester's roof, though perfectly workmanlike, bears the imprint of value engineering in a design-and-build contract. For instance, the curving primary beams supporting the steep side of the pool roof are simple sections of steel plate unceremoniously bolted together. The beams supporting the shallow side over the spectator seating are even more basic straight trusses of bolted steel angles, but they have been craftily screened from view by the rippling acoustic baffles below.

Although it may pack less visual delight for architects to drool over, the Manchester complex does not skimp on finishes within the reach of users or building services, both of which are vital to the building's durability. Hard-wearing limestone slabs are specified for the reception area, and the spectator gallery, changing rooms and pool surrounds are all fully tiled.

Although almost completely concealed from the users, the services are one of the building's most impressive elements. Plant for water treatment and air-handling are housed in a basement of cathedralesque proportions, which includes a clear passageway 3 m wide and of the same height, through which equipment can be replaced without disruption.

Treated air is distributed through the pool hall by means of two ring ducts, which are cast in concrete at pool level and obviate the maintenance problems posed by high-level steel ducts in a corrosive pool atmosphere. The outer ring duct runs around the foot of the perimeter glazing and distributes heated air through the hall. The inner duct encircles the pool and extracts stale air along with water overflowing from the pool edges.

Architecturally, shoehorning so much accommodation into a constricted inner-city site has been "seriously hard work", in the words of FaulknerBrowns' Deeming. Enabling works included removing car parking and a three-storey 1970s student accommodation block from the site and rebuilding them elsewhere. In the design, the rectangular building conceals its bulk without overpowering the smaller buildings on three sides. "We have created a scale comparable with the existing streetscape and we have used the same family of materials," says Deeming.

Two-storey dry accommodation, including the main entrance, a dance studio and fitness suites, has been placed along the south side. Here four service and access towers rise to the same height as the recently completed management school opposite, and are faced with sandstone, polished granite plinths and green-tinged creamy-white cladding to match. On the north side, the profiled steel roof of the pool hall drops to first-floor level, on a similar scale to the neighbouring landscaped car parking and old

two-storey pub. One gable end closes off two intimate landscaped courtyards in the student housing, while the other rises up straight from the pavement to present a more striking image to the main Oxford Road.

The English Institute of Sport accommodation, including the 50 m training pool, was a latecomer to the brief, added after scheme design had been completed. The only location that could be found was in the basement below the two-storey accommodation. This required excavations through sandstone to an extra depth of 6 m.

To cover their costs, all championship sports facilities must serve the local community as well as stage spectator events. Manchester's new aquatics centre shows how such a facility can serve championships, elite training and community alike, yet fit comfortably into the physical fabric of the community – accessible on the outside and spectacular on the inside.

The three-stage tender process for Manchester’s pools

An unusual three-stage tender process was used to procure the new £32.2m Manchester Aquatics Centre. “We are on the vanguard of using this process,” says Ian Taylor, Manchester City Council’s project manager for the centre. “We deal with a lot of large one-off projects where we need a contractor’s advice on buildability before we let the contract. As a public authority, we also have to tender on the open market. For the centre, the council carried all the financial risk, even though it provided only 20% of the funding.” Nick Deeming, director of architect FaulknerBrowns, picks up the story: “The council wanted a design-and-build contract to reduce its financial risk. But Sport England thought that would not provide satisfactory quality on such a complex project. So, if it had to be design-and-build, we wanted the input of a contractor as early as possible.” At scheme design stage, the city council tendered for a buildability consultant to advise on detailed design and appointed Laing. After a clean break, the council set up a two-stage tender for a lump-sum building contract. The first stage was based on preliminaries, mark-up fees, statement of method and suitable experience. The second stage was to procure the subcontractors and value-engineer the works packages in association with the appointed contractor. After both of these tenders, Laing won a £22.5m contract, and the design team, except for the quantity surveyor, was novated to the contractor. “Having the contractor on board makes the value-engineering task simple,” says Taylor. “We were able to save on structural steelwork, ducting, windows and services.” “Normally contractors bid to win on price only,” says architect Deeming. “Here we were able to ensure that the contractor was compliant on quality before their contract was agreed. As a result there were no ambiguities or gaps in information.” “As builders, we normally tender and then get just six weeks to understand the job before starting on site,” says Rob Pugh, Laing’s business development manager. “Here, because we had been involved early on, were able to hit the ground running. Also, subcontractors are more keen to bid when they know that the main contractor is already on board.” The city council confirms that Laing completed the project 10 weeks early, and Deeming says: “There are no claims from the contractor, period.”