We built this (Olympic) city - materials and building design

Materials World magazine
26 Nov 2013

Rhiannon Garth Jones examines the buildings that contributed to London 2012’s success, and the materials that made them.

In 1912, medals were awarded for architectural contributions in addition to those for sporting achievements. Sadly, this tradition was obsolete by London’s 2012 Olympics, but if it had remained, the result would surely have been a photo- finish. An increased focus on materials, created by the emphasis on sustainability in addition to aesthetics, generated a series of iconic and pioneering buildings that were as celebrated by fans as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.

Although the International Olympic Committee didn’t grant any architectural awards, the Building Centre’s We Made 2012 project in London, UK. commemorated both the buildings and materials used.

Building: Pudding Mill Lane sewage pumping station
Key material: Precast concrete
Architect: John Lyall Architects
Nicknamed Pinky and Perky, the sewage pumping station designed by John Lyall Architects, combined simplicity and functionality with visual appeal. The two painted pink steel canisters gave the building its nickname, but it was the use of precast concrete that earned the pumping station a place on this list. Its self-supporting nature means that it is able to form almost the whole structure – the outside walls are 200mm thick panels that support the roof. Neil Young, now Director of LBY Architects and one the designers, selected precast concrete for its durability, its capacity to form a perfect curve and the challenge of using concrete to create an attractive sewage station. To ensure that the structure wasn’t associated with 1960s social housing, various measures were employed, including pigmenting the concrete with two different tones – a difficult process. The fact that one of the architectural triumphs of London 2012 was a pumping station says something about the general quality of the work on show across the Olympic Park, as well as the extraordinary achievement of the designers.

Building: The Copper Box
Key material: Copper
Architect: Make Architects
The only permanent indoor sports arena retained in the Olympic Park, the Copper Box is made from more than 65% recycled copper, will be 100% recyclable after use, and its design incorporates light pipes and rainwater collectors to reduce energy and water use by 40%. Sustainability wasn’t the only reason copper was selected as the main material for this structure, however. Its resistance to corrosion in any atmosphere, lack of maintenance requirements and ability to weather with age, acquiring a natural patina, are all reasons why copper has been used as a building material for centuries and why it was selected by Make Architects. Finally, the reflective nature of the material means that at different times and from different places, the visual impact of the building alters, adding depth and interest.

Building: The Water Polo Arena
Key material: Phthalate-free PVC
Architect: David Morley Architects
This temporary structure wowed crowds with its undulating, inflatable roof. To produce this effect, David Morley Architects used a phthalate-free PVC, Précontraint 1002 S2 NPP Silver, to create double membrane cushions 54m long x 10m wide, inflated with air at a pressure of around 300 pascal. Externally, this effectively insulated the building and allowed rainwater to easily drain. Internally, the structure of the cushions omitted the need for traditional supports and the choice of material reduced the poor acoustics inherent to aquatic centres, as well as creating a bright environment to allow for high-definition video recordings. The roof needed to be easily dismantled yet retain its form for reuse in the future, and the design enabled this, meeting the construction aims of sustainability, adaptability and aesthetic appeal.

Atkins Infrastructure, which was responsible for the North Park, reclaimed 98% of the materials employed for future use, as well as initially using recycled materials wherever possible. Temporary kerbs were made from recycled plastic, and temporary gravel was made from waste plastic rather than traditional materials. Two ‘soil hospitals’ were set up to test, process and treat excavated contaminated soil for reuse, leading to more than 80% of soil being reused.