… it’s time for some new Olympic heroes. As the games get off the blocks in Athens, Building decided six nations deserved gold medals for excellence in their specialist field of construction. William Wiles awarded points for stamina, speed, agility, strength, technique and synchronicity.

Move over Paula …
Move over Paula …

Marathon stamina

Gold medal: GREECE

It truly was a marathon effort for the under-prepared Greeks to deliver this year’s Olympics on time. In an event that kept everyone on the edge of their seats, the Greeks have struck gold by completing their Olympic facilities in time for the opening of the games.

For a time, it looked extremely doubtful that the facilities – notably Santiago Calatrava’s 72,000-seater Olympic stadium, with its gymnastic roof – would ever be ready. The various projects were dogged by delays, rows and threats of industrial action. The roof of the aquatic centre was scrapped, a contractor working on the marathon route went bankrupt and archaeological finds slowed work down. To top it all, the 8000-tonne steel arches that would swoop over Calatrava’s stadium had to be erected in 14 weeks, leaving no room for error. If that had gone wrong, the stadium would have been unusable and the Greeks would have suffered their worst defeat since Xerxes.

According to Stef Stefanou, chairman of John Doyle Group, a Greek minister said “the construction industry is a Sirtaki” – a dance that starts very slowly, speeds up and ends very fast. “And he’s been proved right.”

Gymnastic agility


In an incredible show of gymnastic dexterity, the Chinese have left nothing to chance ahead of the 2008 Olympics. “China would win gold for the number of things it’s got right,” says Alastair Collins, the global board chief executive of Davis Langdon. “The Chinese have their transport and stadium organised. They’re really cranking it. And they’re giving it star quality with architects such as Herzog & de Meuron and Norman Foster.”

Praise indeed, but then this is a country that is leaving nothing to chance in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. If the Greeks gave a stirring display in the sprint finish, this is a demonstration of meticulous preparation and superhuman co-ordination. The Chinese organising committee published its action plan for their games back in 2002, swearing to host the “best-ever Olympics in history”, the stadium design was picked in April last year and, at the rate things are moving, the Chinese will be sitting around twiddling their thumbs years before the torch is due to arrive. More than £12.7bn has been committed to the project, the first phase of construction is already complete, and the major structural work will be finished by 2006 if all goes to plan. Then there’s just the fit-out to do by 2008.

The Olympic effort is just part of China’s titanic efforts to be considered a first-rate world player in all sorts of fields. Indeed, the list of stars associated with the team just grows: in Beijing, Foster is designing an airport, Paul Andreu put his name to the Opera House and Rem Koolhaas came up with the astonishing structure for the head office for CCTV, the state broadcaster. Across the rest of the country, huge infrastructure projects like the Three Gorges Dam are creating big ripples. “The sheer demand of China as a construction economy is forcing up the price of crude oil,” says Collins, “and there’s a worldwide shortage of structural steel because of China.”

Speed of a sprinter


From Jesse Owens through to Maurice Green USA sprinters have dominated the modern Olympics, and the country’s speed in construction is no less impressive.

“They seem to build much faster than we do,” says Mike Jeffries, chairman of consultant Atkins – but he’s not quite as impressed by the team’s technique. “Sometimes quality leaves a bit to be desired, but they do build very fast. That goes right back to the Empire State Building, which was built in one year and 45 days.”

More recently, a 143,000 ft2 office building in the 389,000 ft2 King Street Metroplace masterplan in Alexandria, Virginia, was completed in 14 months, and the 111,500 ft2 Greenspring office building in Columbia, Maryland, was finished in 10 months.

But how do the Yanks achieve this blistering pace? Well, when sportswear giant Reebok decided to build a chain of sports clubs in the UK in 2002, it didn’t let different field conditions affect its commitment to high-speed construction. As Building reported on 1 November 2002, it met a tight schedule by using prefabricated bulkhead ducts, long working hours, time- and labour-saving tools such as shot-fired fixing instead of screws, and by trimming concessions to neatness like cable trays in floors.

But it’s the US military that really sends the records tumbling. Its headquarters, the 5 million ft2 Pentagon in Washington DC, took 16 months to build. Another military project that beat the stopwatch was the Guantanamo Bay prison compound, built by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root.

A boxer’s strength


US-led economic sanctions could have floored the Cubans but, showing the heart of Evander Holyfield, the country punches above its weight in tourism construction. This underdeveloped Caribbean island came from being the underdog to a triumphant gold-medallist in this category.

To get around the USA’s embargo imposed after the 1962 missile crisis, the Cuba government has been creative in coming up with 50:50 joint ventures that are attractive to foreign investors.

“Since the Russians departed in 1989, they’ve developed their tourism market massively,” says Stephen Wells, business development director for the Costain group, who worked in Cuba with Biwater International two years ago. “In 14 years they’ve developed more than 15,000 four-star hotel rooms. Their target is 29,000 rooms.”

The island’s got big names to develop its tourism infrastructure. Among the biggest is Sol Melia, the 10th largest hotel group in the world. It has already built 15 five-star hotels in Havana and around the Cuban coast, and has a similar number of four-star hotels. Cuba attracts 1.7 million tourists a year.

Also, according to Wells, this has been achieved without damaging Cuba’s heritage. “They’re retaining their cultural heritage – retaining facades of the older hotels while redeveloping them, so the facades are still there – but they’re blending in the modern hotels and they seem to have got the balance right, unlike some Caribbean countries.”

“Irrespective of the embargo being lifted, they have still won the gold.”

Swimming synchronicity


Sweden proves that if you synchronise your resources, however meagre, you can take home the top prize. “Sweden has got a small population, 8 or 9 million, yet it absolutely leads the field in off-site manufacturing,” says James Pickard, partner of Cartwright Pickard Architects. “People say our market isn’t big enough, but Sweden manages it.”

Sweden now has 15 makers of prefab building components, and flatpack furnishings chain Ikea, which originated in Sweden, built an entirely prefab town in 2001.

The reason the Swedes have excelled on this track is all down to the weather they train in. “They work in a cold climate and they can’t dig holes in the ground for much of the year, so they have to build fast,” says Pickard. But plenty of countries have reputation for prefab, including the Netherlands and Japan – so what else makes the team stand out?

The answer, Pickard says, lies not in the efficiency of the techniques but how effective the Swedes have been at exporting them. “If you look at the list of the richest people in Europe, a great many of them are Swedes or Germans,” he says, “and that’s because they are both entrepreneurial countries that manufacture and export. Manufacturing’s just not considered sexy in Britain. As construction gets more manufacturing-based, it favours those countries that commercialise entrepreneurship; we have an appalling record at that.

“Sweden absolutely stands out in the commercialisation of manufacturing. It’s really Ikea all over again.”

Freestyle technique


Like the freestyle swimmer, the Netherlands will use any technique to complete the course quicker than its rivals. It truly is the Ian Thorpe of its field – the housebuilding field, that is. “The Netherlands’ speciality is definitely housing, with a particular aspect of social housing,” says Lolke Ket, a director of the Rotterdam office of Aukett Architects. “That’s definitely one of our great exports.”

The backbone of this world domination was the “Vinex” masterplans in the early 1990s. This laid down strict rules for housing construction as the government planned 750,000 homes, but also required innovation in design and construction methods. Government subsidies no doubt helped.

Conveniently coinciding with an architectural renaissance led by pioneers such as MVRDV and Rem Koolhaas’ Office of Metropolitan Architecture, the Dutch let rip with some of the best housing in the world. Examples abound. There’s the unsettling, David Lynch-like quality of MVRDV’s Subdivision 10 development near Ypenburg, where all the houses are the same simplistic cookie-cutter shape but differ in colours, Erik van Egeraat and Frits van Dongen’s crushed-cardboard-box Whale building on the Sporenburg peninsula, the PRP Architects’ Gulden Kruis development in Amsterdam, and BDP’s Armada apartments in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

There’s also quantity to consider as well as quality. The Dutch build their own pitch by reclaiming land from the sea, and that has provided space for a proliferation of new towns such as “Almere is now the Netherlands’ fourth biggest town, constructed over the past 20 years,” says Ket.

Just three months ago, housing mutual Tenants First announced that it would use Dutch techniques to build a five-home development in Ballater, near Aberdeen, Scotland – the first development of its kind in the UK.