Making a splash

How the new centre in Sandwell will look

Nothing focuses attention like a deadline that has billions of people, including Her Majesty the Queen, at the end of it.

Contractors across Birmingham are racing against the clock to be ready for the XXII Commonwealth Games which will run from 28 July until 8 August 2022. It will be bringing together more than 4,000 of the world’s elite athletes from 71 countries, in an 11-day festival of sport and culture.

Sounds like plenty of time to prepare? The challenge is that Birmingham was never intended to host one of the world’s largest multi-sport events. It should have been hosted by South Africa but financial problems hit the organisers and extraordinarily the Games was given to the UK. Thanks to the 2012 Olympics and previous events, there are enough specialist facilities – except for a suitable aquatics centre.

The London 2012 venue was reduced in size – as planned – to become a community and national sporting venue. It can’t be changed back and, in any case, it’s in London. So the only new venue for the Games will be the aquatics centre in Sandwell on the site of a council-owned swimming pool.

A report to Sandwell Council’s Cabinet members at the beginning revealed they were pressed for time: “The development of a new facility in Sandwell has a heightened level of urgency as this will need to be delivered well in advance of the Games and no later than the summer of 2021 to allow sufficient time for testing and preparation for the Games.”

Getting started

The design and specification for the project was agreed by the Games Committee and signed off by the local authority. The £73m centre will have two lives: one for the event and then another as a multi-sport community facility.

All the pools at the site need to be built to the standard to meet the Federation Internationale De Natation (FINA) facilities rules: an Olympic sized pool (50m x 25m x 2m), a 25m diving pool and 5,000 spectator seats.

The temporary building must also be able to deal with the heat generated by specialist TV lighting. Part of the specification also includes installing HVAC systems for temporary chillers and air handling units using fabric ducting at high level for the warm-up pool tent and link corridor. Temporary power is estimated to equate to 90 per cent of the requirement, and HVAC approximately 10 per cent.

After the Games, the venue will be reduced in size for community use with seating for 1,000 people.

The main build is being led by Wates Construction. The firm was appointed in January last year as the contractor via Major Works UK – part of the Scape National Construction framework. It is based just four miles away in Quinton.

The project contract goes beyond design and build. Wates has other commitments, including supporting its supply chain in taking on apprentices and helping them transfer into permanent positions upon completion. The company will also engage with local schools to deliver work experience placements on site and encourage a more diverse demographic into an industry combating growing skills shortages.

How are they progressing? The cleared site was handed over to Wates Construction in July last year and it’s at the halfway stage.

Dan Sadler, operations director (MEP), is leading a team of more than 30 specialists and has many more on site. He tells P&H Engineering how it’s coming together.

“I’m used to working on large-scale infrastructure but nothing with this time scale. All the Games projects are having to be delivered very, very quickly from concept to completion,” he says. “We tend to get involved early in a project – Stage Two design – because you’ve got to inform the outcome and the budget. We do a feasibility study and that guides the budget. We know the risks and that gives the client a really robust indication of whether the project can proceed in line with their aspirations.”

He explains how they’ve handled the dual use issue by working back from its final configuration: “We’ve integrated lots of modularisation. Ultimately, the primary purpose of the building is a recreation and leisure centre. It’s been designed from day one as that function and the Games is on top of that.”

Speeding the planning process was achieved by a “brilliant” community engagement process by the council.

The community specification includes a 50m competition pool, a 20m community pool, fitness studios plus a sauna and steam room. The centre, designed by Roberts Limbrick Architects, will also have three activity studios, two four-court sports halls, a 108-station gym, a 25-station women-only gym, dry diving facilities, an indoor cycling studio, new football pitch and changing facilities.

Water, water everywhere

That’s a lot of heat and even more water to control. The Olympic-size pool alone holds 660,430 gallons of water – which has to go somewhere.

“There’s lots of pools. There’s a lot of varying temperatures and supply rates,” says Sadler. “At this stage there’s a massive number of people on the ground and contractors ensuring the coordination of the pipework and drainage system. That’s been a challenge.”

It has to be right, especially for sections of the building that will be underground such as the plant rooms.

He says: “There’s lots of in situ concrete pouring. We’ve contributed to 3D modelling extensively to pinpoint everything. There are 130 people doing re-bar excavations and pouring concrete. It has to be done that way to make sure the structure is robust.”

But there’s a twist – making sure a pool doesn’t leak. Sadler explains: “We have to fill it to test it before we can put any sort of façade around it. Then there’s the challenge of getting rid of it and we’ve had to think about how we use it.”

The solution is to store the water in a portable tower and lorries and re-use it for each test. That will be five million litres by the end of the process – “all whilst the rest of the building is going on,” he explains.

Complex challenges

Ventilation is just as challenging: “A leisure centre doesn’t usually have 5,000 spectators. The environment during the competition will be completely different in terms of design. Putting the distribution vents through the building requires lots of coordination, particularly in the sub-level basements. Every fitting has to be in the right place and sized correctly,” he says.

Another part of the challenge is ensuring there’s access to the service rooms to make sure the systems are maintainable. And some are high up in the building.

Coordinating this hugely complex project is the biggest win for those involved.

Sadler says: “I’m proudest of the way all of our businesses have worked together really well. The teams have collaborated together and worked as one from day one.”

The Games team are delighted with the results so far. Ian Reid, chief executive officer for Birmingham 2022 says: “This is a hugely exciting moment for us as organisers of the Commonwealth Games, as this fabulous centre is going to be one of the jewels in the Birmingham 2022 crown, especially as it’s the only brand-new competition venue being built ahead of the Games.

“It’s great to see how much progress has already been made on site and I’m looking forward to receiving regular updates over the next two years.”

Despite the intensity of the delivery – and the work to come after the event – the Sandwell team involved are already excited for 2022.

Sadler says: “I’m a real sports fan. I applied for lots of tickets for 2012 but didn’t get any. I definitely won’t be missing out this time. I will be really proud to view it at the opening.”

Just the job: Working at Wates

Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, Wates dates back to 1897.Today it is an award-winning construction, property services and development company employing 4,000 people. There’s an early careers programme for apprentices. Find out more at

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