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It's warped and reminiscent of the side of a training shoe

I know this is a peripheral project to the Olympic core but it must be a pretty important first foot for the Games. I was mapping out the opening line ‘is this another Crystal Palace - disconnected - what about the poor athletes?

David Morley Architects was set up by David Morley, a former director at Foster Associates, in 1987. The practice works across several sectors, and has completed a number of sports schemes. Key projects include the Hub sports centre in Regent’s Park, the University of Liverpool’s Biosciences building and the National Cricket Academy in Loughborough (AJ 11.03.04).

I am looking up and straight through a huge roof that, from the spans on the drawing sent to me, I had expected to be dominated by trusses too heavy for the sleek low interior of David Morley’s Athletics centre. Not so. Morley has created an indoor athletics hall that is ‘outdoor’. The running track sits under a giant set of louvres that shade the athletes from the sun and ood the hall with a soft and even north light. The north lights sit in the height of the trusses, effectively scaling down Buro Happold’s crisply detailed and tapering trusses. The drawings had been beguilingly simple and even Morley’s assistant had said the centre would only take an hour to see. But there is a lot going on here. The more I look the more I want to know about this simply executed building.

I am late, but the serenity of the space overtakes my impatience. Morley looks up from the seats by the pillar-box red vending machines. He takes a second look, probably because I am in my bike-courier outfit.

Picketts Lock in north-east London is not the easiest place to get to. I remember coming here for the 2005 International Athletics Stadium competition. Tottenham Hale is the nearest tube station direct from our office in the West End. For the last leg from the tube station, I had struggled against a nasty headwind on a fold-up bike. The road was long and desolate. I remember thinking: ‘why don’t they plant some trees?’ This time I came from Notting Hill on my race bike. I would have got there in 45 minutes had I known the way but ended up lost and came along the towpath of the canal. I had been directed by an amateur fisherman who knew the place but knew nothing of a shiny new sports building.

I was getting worried. ‘But it’s a huge thing, ’ I declared. I know this is a peripheral project to the Olympic core but it must be a pretty important first foot for the Games. I was mapping out the opening line ‘is this another Crystal Palace - disconnected - what about the poor athletes?’ when suddenly there it was.

No wonder no-one could direct me to it, they wouldn’t have seen it. The building is so modest. The east eaves look barely 3m off the ground and the front has the scale of a normal out-oftown industrial building.

I approached from the south up a one-way road which wouldn’t be the normal way into the site. However, it’s a very attractive first view of the building. It was immediately apparent that something clever is going on with the roof plane. It’s warped and reminiscent of the side of a training shoe. The south gable wall is fully glazed and shaded by a louvred awning which even on this dull day sparkled. I would later discover that the client was concerned about the entrance. A canopy had been discussed.

I could easily have headed for the south awning thinking it was the front door but instead I had gone straight to the main entrance.

The unceremonious entrance works because of the clear concept. The building divides neatly into ancillary space and the main shed for the track. The ancillary wing is a standard-looking rectangular box that forms an entrance plane in front of the big athletics hall behind. The front door is recessed with no need for a gratuitous awning. Above the facade there are floating ventilators that reminded me of the flat vent covers on Suffolk maltings. They give the necessary architectural interest above the blank frontage of the entrance wall. The door reveal is low and the spatial compression magnifies the surprise on entering the enormous hall.

Morley hands me a coffee. I find myself talking too much about ‘Design and Build Olympics’ and anecdotes from past athletics projects. One of my favourites is the battle of the warmup track; a battle that often takes place, as the ideal position for the warm-up is rarely convenient. Morley’s team had made a brief site analysis of the indoor and outdoor tracks. The built option works perfectly as a warm-up for outdoor events. The distance from the indoor track to the 100m start is minimal. Many international athletics stadiums don’t even have this relationship. We talk about how well the site layout will work for future events. The building creates a south-facing protected corner that relates well with the outdoor track and field. I ask why the wing (which shelters the terrace) sticks out. Morley says: ‘Because the sprint track is 140m and that makes it longer than the length needed for the hall.’

The sprint straight is above the support space. By stacking in this way Morley saves on width, allowing the building to be squeezed into the ideal location relative to the outdoor track. It also kicks up the roof to give height just where it is needed for the pole-vault and the trajectory for the throwing-practice nets. I can see this is going to be the theme of the visit. Everything in this building is needed, but does more than its main purpose. Is this the way to make Design and Build work? Was it Design and Build?

We move into the hall again; I look across at the long scissor ramps. These, Morley explains, work as spectator space as well as the required disabled access to the sprint-track mezzanine.

The crossover landing has a set of steps down to the 500 seats on axis with the track. This subtle axial plan highlights the ceremonial and processional aspects of athletics events.

We walk up the long ramp to the mezzanine sprint-track through an arcade of slanted columns. Morley senses I am slightly cynical about the angled effect and he explains how cross-bracing wasn’t needed, due to the design of the columns. I change my mind. The colonnade reminds me of the combined sports hall and pool building at Crystal Palace. Circulation space is organised by an athletic-looking structural spine. Walking up the ramp between the columns I can see into the support spaces and across the track hall. Everything is open and connected. I am in a counterpoint to the main axis and the whole building is being unveiled.

We pause on the crossover landing. How couldn’t we?

The building isn’t even open yet and here we are appreciating the special line of achievement. I wonder if the opening ceremony will be organised around this axis.

Standing at the end of the sprint straight I am looking down a daunting gallery. Suddenly 140m looks a long way.

The outside wall is concrete which, David explains, increases the thermal mass, and it’s not the only place where Max Fordham has introduced green measures. Building mass is exposed wherever possible and the space can be naturally lit for most of the time. The long wall is washed with daylight from above by a full-length strip of roof lighting. It’s a dramatic space with a view across the hall.

From here I can see that the running track is below ground level by about 1m. This neatly allows the raised banking on the track bends to be ush with the main oor level and also explains why the building is so low from the outside. Morley tells me that the red vending machines, reception and spine wall lockers, blue track and white walls are borrowed from the Union Jack.

Up here we are closer to the trusses. I scrutinise the joints trying to look critical. I’m not. Was this a Design and Build? I pop the question at last. ‘Yes, ’ Morley tells me, and goes on to say what a good experience it was. The contractor, Shepherds, helped to keep the design as Morley intended. We talk about the roof.

The roof grid is the maximum span for the decking. No purlins required. The double curvature creates bigger windows at the crest of the roof and these open for natural ventilation. The airow is helped by the external cowls I had seen when I arrived.

We head for the outside. The southern awning tapers with the elevation and will cast a shadow exactly to the base of the glass. As we walk out to the baby outdoor stand (squeezed into the original budget and brief) Morley shows me how the track is protected by an earth berm and we agree about the importance of an uninterrupted horizon line to protect events from adverse wind.

I can see the banking could be ‘picnicking seats’ for summer events, swelling the spectator numbers to, say, 1,500.

Looking back at the south wall again I let Morley know what I think. There has been no need for gimmicks to make this building attractive. I can see it appealing to the athletes. It’s lean and light.

We leave. David heads north to the overground train station. I have a puncture; gravel from the tow path. I’ll fix it and have a last look around. Heading south I can see Canary Wharf.

It’s a long way. Between here and there will soon be the cranes for the Olympics. Already it’s a special place. It will be a long haul to get ready, just like the training programme for the young athletes at Picketts Lock.

The designers of this building have added more than the expectations of the brief and have shown that good design is possible whatever the contract. They have added value to virtually all the key components, starting with the very essence of the brief by making indoor athletics a virtual outdoor experience. It would have been a remarkable building whatever the form of contract used. The best athletes train in all weathers.

STRUCTURE

SITE

The site for the Lee Valley Athletics Centre has a complex history, which has influenced the type of structure suitable to be built there.

During the first half of the last century, the site was used for gravel extraction to a depth of 5-8m. After the Second World War the site was backfilled with a variety of material, including some organic matter. From an engineering and environmental viewpoint this layer of ground is poor, as it comprises a range of materials at varying density and levels of decay and is subject to uneven settlement.

FOUNDATIONS

A site investigation showed that the underlying London clay was firm and able to support the building. Therefore, the building is supported on concrete piles, driven through the fill and into the clay. The ground fl oor inside the building is also supported on piles, as a groundbearing slab could not provide the high tolerances required for the running track. The ground-floor slab has an active gas-venting system to avoid build up of methane gas. The external sports field is constructed as a normal groundbearing track, although the ground was prepared using dynamic compaction prior to construction of the track.

SUPERSTRUCTURE

The steel superstructure of the building was designed to be an efficient form that integrated the architectural and environmental requirements into a united whole. The roof has curved steel trusses spanning across the main hall, tapering towards each end. The regular series of trusses allows the introduction of natural daylight and ventilation through a pattern of opening north-facing windows.

The tapering shape of the trusses at the ends reduces material use while maintaining an efficient form. V-shaped supports adjacent to the first-floor sprint track provide support to the ends of the roof trusses while automatically stabilising the building against forces along the line of the trusses. The structure of the sprint track is virtually independent of the main roof trusses, and is a simple framed steel structure supporting precast-concrete floor decks.

The dynamic response of the sprint-track floor beams were carefully designed to deal with the high-frequency sprint-track loads.

Andrew Best, Buro Happold

Cost The London Marathon Trust has committed 70,000 towards equipping the centre
Tender issue date March 2004
Start on site date June 2005
Contract duration 16 months
Gross external floor area 9,700m 2
Form of contract JCT
Major Project Form with amendments
Total cost 16 million (overall development budget cost)
Client Lee Valley Regional Park Authority
Architect David Morley Architects
Structural engineer Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor EC Harris
Planning supervisor Gardiner & Theobald
Main contractor Shepherd Construction Selected subcontractors and suppliers Steelwork SH Structures; sports consultancy
Materials Science Consultants; sports equipment Schelde International; aluminium roof deck Kalzip; fall-arrest system for roof Kalsafe; rooights Duplus Domes; glazing and curtain walling Saint Gobain; Flat roof, Evalastic-V fully-bonded polymer-faced EPDM ICB; curtainwalling system, metal door and louvres Technal; prefab translucent structural sandwich panels Kalwall; glazed sliding doors and louvres Dorma; terracotta blockwork NBS Group; light fittings Thorn, Concord, Zumtobel, Tamlite, Philips, Abacus, Bega, Marlin, Whitecroft; sanitaryware Armitage Shanks; terrazzo oor tiles Quiligotti; vinyl safety oor Altro; ironmongery Trapex; athletics surfaces Altro, Regupol, Mondo, Sportex Track

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