For construction professionals 2012 is a once-in-a-career opportunity. Katie Puckett talks to three of the fortunate ones about the thrill of masterplanning the Lower Lea Valley, tunnelling power lines and decontaminating land

Samantha Stevens, project manager, LDA

Cleaning up 200ha of contaminated land may not be everyone’s idea of a dream job, but Samantha Stevens loves it. She’s part of the team in charge of remediating the 2012 site and getting all the contractors working together to clear the land so that building can begin.

She’s under no illusion about the scale of the task. “I don’t think a remediation scheme has been done to this size before. That’s quite hard to manage from a strategic point of view down to the detail of minimising waste and hitting the sustainability targets for the scheme.”

Stevens says that no two days in land remediation are the same. “I’ve worked on sites only a couple of miles away and the challenges are completely different.” For the last year, she’s been discussing the designs with the ODA, communicating the client’s objectives to the contractors and keeping an eye on how the land remediation strategy will affect the legacy of the site.

The sheer scale of the site means Stevens can take advantage of a once-in-a-career opportunity to explore technologies – for example soil washing, which involves literally rinsing the chemicals out of the finer material. “We’re trying to maximise use of technologies that are available in the UK but not widely used. You really can’t do that with the constraints you have on a smaller project.” They’re also going to share the equipment across contractors to ensure efficiency. “If we only need one soil washing plant, we’ll only have one.”

Like her colleagues on other parts of the project, the legacy of the 2012 is never far from Steven’s mind. “It’s an amazing opportunity to work on a scheme this size because you have such an impact on the major regeneration of an area. It’s nice to think you’re bringing something back that used to be derelict. Once in a while you pinch yourself and realise how lucky you are to be working on such a great project.”

Bob Brown, senior contracts manager, Murphys

Helen, Fionnuala, Sonia and Lucille are the most important members of Bob Brown’s team. It’s not that he presides over an especially glamorous undergrounding crew – these are the tunnel boring machines digging away beneath the 2012 site.

In January, Brown became one of the first people to start work at Stratford, burying the existing power lines beneath the ground so that construction of the venues for 2012 can begin.

“It’s a very demanding programme,” he says. “There’s 13km of tunnels to be built. We always give the machines female names. When we talk about how it’s going, we ask ‘how’s Helen doing?’, ‘how’s Sonia doing?’” Because of the tight timescales, the tunnel machines were sourced from other projects. Fionnuala was named by primary school children in Ireland; Helen was named by previous owners in England; Sonia and Lucille are from the US and are called after the previous owner’s ancestors.

So far, all four of the machines seem to be doing pretty well and Brown is pleased. “We’ve sunk four shafts, we’re sinking three, we’ve got a kilometre of tunnel built and the vertical and horizontal conveyor systems are installed and working. It’s good to see it come together in a very short time.”

Olympic glamour aside, Brown admits that to him, it’s a tunnelling project first and foremost. The best thing about it has been the attitude on the part of all those involved and, he adds, the client. “There’s a commitment to getting the job built. Everyone realises the importance of the project.”

With 250 operatives onsite and 60 managers, engineers and QSs, Brown spends a lot of his time worrying about health and safety. So far, it’s paying off. “We’ve got a high commitment to health and safety, we’re doing well but there’s always room for improvement,” he says. That’s not the only thing that keeps him awake at night though. “My greatest fear is a serious machine breakdown. We’ve got very good machine crews, so we’re well covered, but a major machine failure is every tunnellers nightmare. The important thing is planned maintenance – it’s like your car, if you don’t look after it, it’ll let you down.”

Michelle Saywood, urban designer and associate director at EDAW

If masterplanning the Lower Lea Valley was an Olympic sport it would probably be a Marathon.

Michelle Saywood has already spent a year working out how all the different elements should fit together but she’s still got a long old slog ahead of her. “We’ve got an aspiration, but there’s an awful lot of work to go though before we can see what the masterplan should be,” she says. “The timetable is incredibly long – completion is another five or six years away.” Right now she’s in that first sprint before the 2012 masterplan goes in for planning in January 2007 – she ruefully admits that an average day sees her in the office from eight in the morning until seven at night.

Once that milestone is passed, it’s on to the legacy. For Saywood, this is one of the most exciting aspects of the project. “That’s why 2012 is fantastic. We’re looking at how you can transform east London. We’re pushing to develop a masterplan that’s not just about development but setting the scene for how the place could be in the future.”

Saywood’s five-strong team are at the heart of the development plans and are responsible for co-ordinating and assimilating the work of all the other organisations involved, including Arup, Atkins, Foreign Office Architects, HOK and Buro Happold. “Never have I worked on a project with so many different teams and offices. We deal with at least five different disciplines each day – and of course the client. You really step out of your mould to do something that is quite unique.” This is their greatest achievement to date, she says – and the greatest source of frustration. “It gets incredibly stressful at times, there are so many people demanding different things.”

At the moment, she’s working with superstar Zaha Hadid on the designs for the Aquatic Centre, which you might well expect to be pretty stressful. Saywood says not. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it actually.”

As for the rest of the team, many were on the original bid so they already know each other pretty well. “We’ve worked together for a long time so we know each other quite intimately. We do go down the pub now, it’s getting better and better.”

Delivering 2012