The London Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony of the Games in July
Glyn Tripick, of the international consulting engineers Buro Happold, was the Project Director for the London 2012 Stadium. Ahead of the telecast of the Nat Geo series Megastructures which goes behind the scenes and delves into unknown facts about some of the world’s greatest engineering marvels, the 62-year-old Briton shared with t2 the challenges and the satisfaction of building an eco-friendly and sustainable stadium that is unique in being designed to be partially dismantled.
London vied for the title of the greenest Games ever. How did the stadium contribute to that?
For a building with intermittent use like a stadium, whose capacity will be used only for a very short period of time, if you are looking to reduce the carbon footprint — that was a challenge we were set — the embodied carbon (the energy used to make the materials of construction) will be far more significant than the operational carbon in contrast to say, an office building or a school that might be used five days a week. The challenge for us was to reduce the carbon embodied in the stadium. To do that, the architects Populous tried to make it compact and include only those facilities that are absolutely essential. We, the engineers at Buro Happold, looked at the materials of constructions to reduce those as far as possible.
How would it compare with the Bird’s Nest stadium of Beijing?
For an 80,000-capacity stadium it has significantly lower embodied carbon than equivalent facilities recently built. For example, the big rakers that support the upper tier are of truss steel construction and not solid steel. The roof is lightweight. Our roof and walls took only 4,500 tonnes of steel compared to the Bird’s Nest which contains 45,000 tonnes of steel. So the embodied energy in our case is much less. When London was awarded the Games, the body set up to deliver the venues, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), looked at the previous Games and found that once the Games ended, the stadia were rarely used again at their full capacity and became white elephants. The challenge the ODA set us was to design a stadium that could be reduced to 25,000 capacity because athletics in UK will attract 80,000 people only for the Olympics.
What developed was a stadium with a two-tiered seating. The lower bowl of 25,000 was to be permanent. Above it was an upper tier of about 50,000 which might not be required in the future and had to be designed to be dismantled. So in all the steel work there was no welding. It was all bolted together so that it could be easily unbolted later.
But critics at home have called it “tragically underwhelming” (The Times). Did that hurt?
Not at all. It was designed to be underwhelming. It was not designed to make a big statement. We wanted a cauldron of spectators inside. All the spectators and athletes have said how fantastic the atmosphere was. That had a lot to do with how compact the stadium was.
Were you part of the opening ceremony?
Right at the end, when Steve Redgrave ran into the stadium with the torch you might have noted that lined on either side were 3,000 construction workers in yellow helmets. I was among them in a suit.
What does the future hold for the stadium? Almost all sports bodies want it: cricket, football, rugby…. Who will have it?
The current favourite end-user is Westham United. An announcement is expected in the next two months. But negotiations are still on as we speak and I am not party to that.
Have Tottenham Hotspur given up their claim?
I think they have. They are developing their own stadium at White Hart Lane and we, Buro Happold , are also involved with that. If Westham do move in, they would want a seating capacity of 60,000. That would mean the upper tier would stay. There are large areas at the farthest semi-circular ends that are farther away than the current FIFA recommendations for spectators. Those seats have to be removed.
But isn’t the stadium certain to host the World Athletic Championships in 2017?
Yes. They could put some of the seats back to add extra capacity for the World Championships. I should imagine they would want 70,000-75,000 seats. Once the decision is taken, we will know whether we will have a 60,000-capacity stadium. It could also be the home of UK Athletics where they could host events like the Athletics Grand Prix, European championships, UK championships. That is still a possibility. Then the capacity would be 25,000, as was planned at first. It is also likely to be used for concerts in summer.
How would you describe the Olympic Stadium episode of Megastructures?
What we have tried to do in the programme is to try and explain what might appear to be complex engineering aspects of construction in a simple way. The production company filmed and narrated it in such a way that most people can understand the simplicity behind what might at one level appear a complex project.
Did the filming happen during or after the construction?
All the filming for the programme was complete before we finished the stadium. All that you see in the show happened during the construction. Which is why there are some changes. For example, the fabric wrap that went outside the stadium is different from the images you’ll see in the programme. That change was made later.
You have been a part of the making of the O2 arena, the Millennium Dome, the British Airways headquarters…. Would the Olympic Stadium be at the top on your CV?
To be involved in an Olympic stadium in your own city has to be the pinnacle. I don’t think you can do anything bigger than that.
Proudest moment at the Games
As an engineer: At the opening ceremony, in the sequence on the Industrial Revolution, when the actor Kenneth Branagh appeared as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the hero of British engineering.
As a sports fan and a Brit: On the Saturday when we won three gold medals — Jessica Ennis (heptathlon), Greg Rutherford (long jump) and Mo Farah (10,000m) — within an hour-and-a-half. That was amazing. Mo Farah’s victory (in picture) gave us goosebumps as till the last 100m we couldn’t be sure if he would win.