You don’t have to be one of the big boys to bag yourself a share of Olympics bounty. Tracy Edwards goes behind the scenes as RG Ballard crosses the finishing line at Newham Athletics Centre in east London

In 2012 the UK will play host to a breathtaking assembly of the world’s finest sportsmen at the new Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.

When it comes to services installation, however, it’s not only the big boys who get to play. With privately owned centres and local authorities alike desperate to get their training grounds up to scratch as pre-games training camps, there’s a host of potential contracts out there for SMEs.

Council-owned sports facilities provide numerous business opportunities. Many have fallen into disrepair, or simply weren’t built for the breadth and level of training now required.

Eager to boost the standing of their constituencies, local authorities are keen, even in these hard economic times, to free a few of those funds for extension projects, new centres or comprehensive refurbishments.

Newham Athletics Centre is a classic example of pre-games opportunity. The new facility replaces a smaller, timber framed building that was deemed unfit due to unacceptable levels of asbestos. Newham Council was the main client for the approved athletics training camp, although UK Athletics and the 2012 Committee also helped to finance the project. All three had input into the specification.

Close working bond

RG Ballard was chosen by main contractor Hutton to provide electrical services for the new centre, in a contract worth £330 000. A close working bond was forged early on, as Newham Council is one of the Ilford, Essex-based electrical contractor’s regular clients, and the firm had recently completed a contract at King George Hospital in Essex with Hutton.

The Newham Centre caters for those training for basketball, badminton, running, long jump, triple jump, high jump, pole vault, javelin and cricket. There is an awkward pause when RG Ballard project manager Gerry McGill adds ‘wheelchair throwing’ to the exhaustive list, but luckily the activity actually involves the expert hurling of balls from wheelchairs.

RG Ballard was highly conscious of the requirements of the centre’s disabled users.

At the request of the client, the firm specified an induction loop system, allowing those who are hard of hearing to link their hearing aids to amplifiers. The system also helps to reduce background noise. Disabled panic alarms were fitted throughout.

Due to the range of uses specified for the building space, flexibility was a key consideration. Electrically-controlled basketball nets disappear back into the ceiling structure when no longer required, ensuring that staff do not have to jeopardise their safety by climbing to remove them manually.

Rather worryingly, some of the more hazardous sports, including cricket and javelin, are practised indoors. Safety was a primary concern. Steel trunking and conduit were specified as a robust choice for this specialist environment. RG Ballard also opted for low-smoke, low-fume, steel-wired armour cable.

All fittings are either recessed or situated at high levels. Light fittings and fire alarms are encased within wire cages for protection against the anticipated barrage of errant balls.

Energy levels

As with all public sector projects, environmental concerns featured high on the agenda. RG Ballard chose a sophisticated lighting control system by Helvar. The centre’s main hall has dimmable lighting with scene controls, and WCs have been fitted with both occupancy and daylight sensors. External lighting by Thorn is controlled via time switches. The team also installed Glamox’s advanced LED lighting and low-energy fluorescent lamps.

A standard CCTV system by Norbain was chosen to provide security throughout the centre. RG Ballard also installed data wiring and patch panels, along with data outlets for future wireless systems.

The building required a 7.6 m clearance due to the pole-vaulting that will be taking place, so all services are knitted in tightly at high level

According to McGill, the contract was a particularly complex one.

“The building required a 7.6m clearance due to the pole-vaulting that will be taking place, so all services are knitted in tightly at high level. We had a hard time trying to miss beams and other elements of the basic structure. There’s also going to be some overlap with the mechanical contractor in a situation like that, too,” he says.

Working at height to such an ambitious specification proved a challenge for RG Ballard and mechanical contractor CD Stone. Motor-driven scissor lifts were used throughout the project to provide elevation and stability.

“If we had worked with the mechanical contractor from an earlier stage, we may actually have been able to prefabricate some of the services and fit them more quickly,” says McGill.

Keeping options open

The services design faced a major modification during the project. Plant rooms for the athletics centre were originally to be located within Newham’s nearby leisure facility.

Later analysis by the client revealed, however, that it would be more cost-effective to create an independent exterior plant room for the new centre.

“It was a design-and-build contract for Hutton. Essentially they were still designing as we were going along. They were keeping their options open,” explains McGill.

The change of direction had a knock-on effect, slowing down other aspects of the construction. The specialist rubber flooring cannot be laid within a building that features temperatures of less than 18°C. With access to heating delayed, this was unachievable within the original time limits.

The RG Ballard team also suffered repercussions due to the activities of other trades. Unfortunately, the ceiling contractor went into liquidation part way through the contract.

“You’re hearing about contractors going out of business more and more at the moment, although it has only affected us the once so far, and that was with the ceiling company. It did delay the contract, but you’ve got to just accept it and carry on to the best of your ability.”

‘Personal best’

Despite the various challenges faced by the services contractors, Newham Athletics Centre opened in June without a hitch, giving RG Ballard a ‘personal best’ performance to be proud of.

Whether you’re sports mad or whether, alternatively, you feel ill at the sight of the Olympics 2012 logo, you have to admit that the games are playing their part in keeping local construction firms afloat during the recession.

Originally published as "Olympic gold" in EMC Jul/Aug 2009