Good afternoon Mr Atkins. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to design, procure and build 98 competition venues, operation centres, drug testing clinics, flag storage areas and training grounds complete with power, water and security … Airport and station extensions must be added as and when required. You have 30 months to complete your assignment. Good luck Mr Atkins … Oh, and when you’ve finished you’ve got to take them all down again …

One-hundred venues. Eighty people.

Two-and-a-half years. The ink has yet to dry on Atkins’ deal to mastermind the temporary structures needed for the 2012 Olympics, but already – five days after its role was confirmed – the pressure is intense.

During the next 917 days, the firm must deliver what is probably the largest temporary build programme the world has ever seen – with the added pressure that, once the athletes go home, it must look as if the whole thing never happened. So with an unfinalised programme, the financial crisis and a host of local demons standing in its way, has Atkins taken on mission impossible?

The challenge

Atkins worked on the initial bid document for the Olympics and has been employed on Olympic park remediation, but its appointment as design services engineer, announced on Monday, is a triumph against the odds. The company didn’t know about the tender put out by LOCOG, aka the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, until 24 hours before the bid deadline.

Mike McNicholas, now project director of the programme, recalls the bizarre course of events that clanked into motion one Thursday afternoon last May. “We’d been invited by LOCOG to put a bid in for planning, but Savills got it. We’d been used to the Olympic Delivery Authority’s online procurement route [the ODA runs the remediation contract], but to be honest we hadn’t seen much from LOCOG, so when we spoke to them we asked whether there were any other opportunities. They said there was one, but that it closed tomorrow afternoon.”

The bid submission was handed in five minutes before the deadline, with McNicholas and two colleagues pulling the final strands together as the clock headed for midnight. “We burned all the midnight oils, but we quickly realised it was our first test and nothing was going to stop us meeting the deadline.” McNicholas smiles. “We prequalified as one of six in 24 hours.”

There was little time for congratulations, however. During the ensuing two-stage bid process, the firm had to not only come up with its answer to LOCOG’s demands, including finding ways to house the myriad small venues, backroom facilities and training areas that would be invisible compared with the Olympic’s main performance venues. It meant, in effect, designing the contract. “They asked us what we thought we would need to do. They almost invited us to come up with what was needed.”

Atkins decided that it had to provide about 100 temporary structures (98 at the last count). These included competition venues for sports such as basketball and canoeing, training facilities and structures to house essential support facilities, such as drug testing and the full raft of logistical functions needed to make the Olympics work.

It’s a schoolboy’s dream! It’s like being given a giant Meccano set

Mike McNicholas, Atkins

The locations stretch from Glasgow to Cardiff. They will also require full power supply, upgraded stations and airports and security facilities. One firm – yes, Atkins – will be responsible for everything from structural and civil engineering to building services design, acoustics and accessibility.

So are McNicholas and his project manager, Steve Cardwell, having any qualms about their involvement? Not one bit. “It’s a schoolboy’s dream!” says McNicholas. “It’s like being given a giant Meccano set.”

Meccano is about right. One of the many challenges of the task is to adapt as many existing structures as possible – important for capping cost and promoting sustainability. These could be buildings, parts of buildings or components such as seating. “The ODA is providing the carcass, the theatre, and we’re setting the stage. With temporary venues, it’s more like product design,” says McNicholas. “You’re integrating products that already exist, but trying not to lose the quality.”

He uses the example of seats. “You wouldn’t want to design bespoke seating – you’d want to keep your options open so you could get seats from a number of suppliers in one stadium.”

Considerations like this are even more pertinent in the current climate, with the future of many smaller suppliers less than certain. Just look at the example of Wembley, where two seating firms went bust, forcing Multiplex to buy up the remaining seats and race desperately to install them itself.

Another big challenge is making temporary venues – many of which are going to be closer to tents than to actual buildings – feel like they are permanent. “It’s about getting the line right,” says McNicholas. “How do you make a tent feel like a permanent structure? Is it about the acoustics and the air flow? It might be those things.”

Some of the structures will be shown globally on TV in August 2012, so there is also the visual element to consider. “What the camera sees has to be new. It has to look unique but be made from a kit of parts.”

But the biggest challenge, according to McNicholas, will be the issues that come with carrying out local projects. “There are a huge number of stakeholders across the country and we need to make sure that we don’t alienate people.” He says one of the big issues for the coming year will be planning and he points out that more local challenges will emerge as the schemes progress. “Like dealing with newts and bats.” He winces.

There is also the small matter of the overall framework within which Atkins is attempting its feat. The budgetary pressures on the Olympics have been well publicised, and although the budget for Atkins’ work for LOCOG will be drawn from outside the ODA’s £9.3bn coffers, it will face similar scrutiny. The fee for Atkins’ work is undisclosed, although it is understood that part of it has been offset by a sponsorship agreement whereby Atkins will be able to promote itself as the official engineering design services provider for the Games, using Olympic branding. Firms who do not take up a sponsorship deal are largely unable to promote their involvement in the project.

The venues are more or less pinned down, but one or two are still under discussion

Steve Cardwell, Atkins

Partly because of these budgetary concerns, the exact details of some of the temporary venues needed have not been finalised, as the Olympic authorities are trying to save as much money as possible. “The venues are more or less pinned down, but one or two are still under discussion,” Cardwell says.

Can it be done?

Atkins may never have worked on an Olympic programme before, but it’s had its share of logistical challenges which McNicholas says stand the firm in good stead. One of these is a contract for the British Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan. “We had to find a solution to accommodation that suited the army. We also got involved with developing response vehicles – again, it’s like product design.”

The firm’s experience of temporary structures includes the Millennium Dome, and McNicholas, in particular, has been involved in seemingly impossible projects – he worked on the 321m-high Burj Al Arab, built on an artificial island in Dubai. “I was there from day one, thinking: how are we going to build this in the middle of the sea?”

At its peak, Atkins expects to have 80 people working on the LOCOG contract and Cardwell and McNicholas are encouraging all of them to help come up with solutions. McNicholas says: “Everyone has to think about what temporary venues can be. At the one end there’s Glastonbury-type stuff, at the other the Millennium Dome. Some things won’t fit just anywhere. It requires inquisitiveness.”

If the build programme is a success, it could well create a trend in construction, particularly for major sporting events. In these credit crunch and eco-conscious times, there are clear advantages to being able to recycle materials and even entire venues.

“It may be another angle to help move modulisation forward,” says McNicholas. “Maybe we should be providing more temporary venues – things that can be upped and moved.”

That’s all very well, but how much will it hurt to have to take it all down when the Games are over? Cardwell says he won’t mind. “These places are genuinely exciting in their own right without our structures.” Generally, he may be right – but one wonders if he’s ever been to Broxbourne.