Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Reiach and Hall's sculptural roof is based on a legendary free kick

  • 1 Comment

At Oriam Sports Performance Centre Reiach and Hall has designed a building around a memorable moment, says Laura Mark

A building designed around Brazilian footballer Roberto Carlos’s famous spiralling free kick against the host country in the 1997 Tournoi de France isn’t what you expect from twice Stirling prize-shortlisted Reiach and Hall. In recent years the practice has become known for the considered restraint of its Modernist Scottish architecture and a headline-grabbing concept like this seems unusually brash.

‘It was a story that could sell an idea,’ design director Neil Gillespie explains, with a wry smile. ‘For a building like this you need something that people can catch onto and remember. It has to be memorable.’

Carlos’s free kick, dubbed ‘the goal that defied physics’, has been studied by scientists. In 2010 New Journal of Physics published an article showing that the footballer had propelled the ball hard enough, over a long enough distance and with enough spin to create a trajectory following the path of an equiangular spiral. It was this logarithmic curve that the architects chose as the ‘memorable’ trope that would shape the geometry of the roof over the indoor pitch of Scotland’s new £33 million sports centre. The curving shapes of the white PVC roof covering also follow the curve taken by the ball after Carlos’s kick. ‘The profile gives the design a memorable form as well as a great story to accompany it,’ adds architect Jim Grimley who led the design team.

The profile gives the design a memorable form

Jim Grimley

The roof has certainly become the defining symbol of this new building nestling within trees on Heriot-Watt University’s Riccarton campus, north of Edinburgh.

When you think about the story of how the building came about it makes sense: Reiach and Hall needed a winning concept from the start. Heriot-Watt was competing for the centre against Dundee and Stirling after a report into Scottish football by then first minister Henry McLeish. Published six years ago, the report made more than 100 recommendations including one for a new national centre for football in Scotland. Stirling, with its strong sporting links and the backing of sporting celebrities Andy Murray and Alex Ferguson, was hotly tipped to win the chance to host it. But, to everyone’s surprise, in September 2013 Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University was named as the winning bidder.

‘Heriot-Watt’s site, with its close proximity to hospitals and the motorway, and also the possibility for expansion, with a hotel also planned for the site, was what swung it,’ says Grimley. For Reiach and Hall, winning the job meant a return to the Riccarton campus, where it had built the university’s original sports centre in the early 90s.

Funded with £26 million from the Scottish Government, £4 million from the university and £2.7 million from Edinburgh City Council, the building is not only Scotland’s national centre for football, it also serves the national rugby team and is the home for the governing bodies of basketball, handball, squash, racketball and volleyball in Scotland.

Housing this many different sports under one roof meant flexibility was key to the design. The centre’s huge 116m x 76m indoor 3G pitch, the largest in Europe, can be subdivided so smaller teams can use it. It also meets the requirements of international sporting bodies with the necessary run-off measurements. It seats 500 spectators. The sports halls, which cater for a wide variety of different activities feature bleaker-style adjustable seating. Both the pitch and the halls can be observed from the glazed café space on the floor above. A natural ventilation strategy implemented throughout the building means it provides comfortable spaces to train when weather prevents outdoor play.

‘There is a hunger to use this space,’ adds Gillespie. ‘It is part of a new generation of university buildings that have to be more public and user-friendly. It is a game-changer for Heriot-Watt.’

The building is a game-changer for Herriot-Watt

Neil Gillespie

Public access provision is generous. The local community can join the centre’s gym alongside the university’s students and local sports teams can hire the facilities. But the building’s sense of openness and accessibility is reinforced in the design by the generosity of its spaces and incorporation of natural daylighting. The general public accesses the building via a welcoming entrance and what is referred to as the ‘street’. A long, straight listed Victorian brick wall, formerly bounding the vegetable garden of Riccarton House (demolished 1956), forms one of the walls of the street, which runs through the building from the main entrance and acts as a way to orientate the spaces. From the street spectators can see into the sports halls and it buzzes with life.

But the scheme also had to provide privacy when occasion demands it. National teams train and compete here and players need to be kept away from prying paparazzi. Its position within a wooded area of the site helps maintain this privacy, and professional players have their own entrance, specialist facilities and changing rooms. A route running along the south perimeter of the building keeps all this separate from the public, so the two areas can operate simultaneously.

The building has been built on an impressively economical budget. Its construction is simple and robust – a steel frame clad in composite panels and PVC, with concrete floors and plasterboard ceilings. Gillespie says the practice developed the palette from its earlier work on the 2010 RIBA Award-winning Aberdeen Sports Village.

Comparing the two, the development of the ideas becomes clear. As at Aberdeen, despite being a large and institutional building Oriam has elements of Reiach and Hall’s careful brand of detailing. In a corridor running behind the 3G pitch blockwork is left bare, but a hit-and-miss arrangement allows light and shadow into the corridor and gives glimpses of games in progress beyond. This could easily have been left a dark space. Small touches such as these change the feeling of the place and delight the senses.

A different architect might have created this building with too big a feel, or rendered its sweeping goal-kick concept a one-off, tacky gesture. But the rest of the building lives up to this bold statement. There is space and light. This project probably won’t be the one to make it a third year running on the Stirling Prize shortlist for the practice, but it is a fine building nevertheless.

Level one plan

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects


Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Steel roof structure axonometric

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects


Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Client’s view 

In 2012 the Scottish Government invited organisations to bid to host and operate a new National Performance Centre for Sport. Heriot-Watt University, in partnership with the City of Edinburgh Council, was successful and worked extensively with Sportscotland and the partner sports to create a world-class facility that also provides extensive access for the local community. The project was built with £26 million from the Scottish Government, £4 million from the university and £2.7 million from the city council. There was a great team spirit amongst everyone involved in the delivery of the project – it was a very exciting process from start to finish.

From the beginning Reiach and Hall realised the importance of creating truly inspirational environments for sport and training. Their vision and design was pivotal in helping our bid to win the competition and bring the facilities to Edinburgh.

The finished project is something that all of Scotland should be extremely proud of and the response from everyone who has toured the site since its completion confirms that a truly world-class facility has been delivered. We are absolutely thrilled with it.

Catriona McAllister, chief executive officer, Oriam

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Source: Broad Daylight

Engineer’s view 

Oriam presented fantastic opportunities to be creative. With long spans and a simple but elegant diagram, the cross-section forms the principal structural concept and is arranged with steel arches spanning from buttresses on each side onto a central street of piers.

The simplicity of the arrangement masks the technical challenges. The football pitch roof uses an asymmetric arch profile with a high rise:span ratio and considerable curvature, forming a highly efficient structure with a comparatively low overall weight. The arch is a naturally efficient form, allowing the structure to work primarily as axially loaded, with relatively small bending moments generated.

The roof spans a number of spaces, including structurally independent two and three-storey buildings, the sports hall, and the main pitch. Tensioned PVC fabric was chosen to clad the football pitch roof, as it offered sufficient light transmission properties to limit the need for artificial lighting, while managing heat gain. It was also preferable in the structural design, as the fabric is lightweight and forgiving to structural movements and deflections.

Single-ply fabric cladding surfaces need to be formed into anticlastic curves in order to be able to maintain their shape under wind and snow loads. To generate these it is necessary to configure the supporting secondary structure so as to create two opposing high points and two opposing low points. Under tension such a surface is stable whether the surface pressure applied is positive or negative.

The fabric roof panels have a particularly long span, which was desirable to keep the number of secondary steel members to a minimum. The diagonal arrangement of arched secondary circular hollow section members ensured that the fabric shape could be prevented from flattening under heavy imposed loading while also creating interest in the roof form itself.

Formed from fabricated steel plate and concealed standard sections, the central piers are designed as 10m-high cantilevers supporting the out-of-balance thrusts from the differing arch spans, while also providing longitudinal restraint against wind loads. This minor axis cantilever action allows for a view from the Street onto the pitch, which is free of bracing. The two arch structures are thermally broken about the central pier.

In order to maintain the structural logic and to create an elegant façade, the gable ends of the football hall were designed with tapering ladder trusses up to 25m high and placed at wide centres to support the part glazed and polycarbonate clad elevations against the high localised wind pressures. The truss sections are shaped to be deepest where the bending moment is highest, and taper down at the top and bottom.

Nathan Wheatley, Engenuiti

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Oriam Sports Performance Centre by Reiach and Hall Architects

Project data

Start on site April 2015
Completion August 2016
Gross internal floor area 16,500m2
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost £24 million
Construction cost per m2 £1,455
Architect Reiach and Hall Architects: project lead, Jim Grimley
Client Heriot-Watt University,The City of Edinburgh Council and Sportscotland
Structural engineer Engenuiti
M&E consultant Max Fordham
QS Deloitte/Thomas & Adamson
Landscape architect Rankinfraser Landscape Architecture
CDM co-ordinator, project manager Thomas & Adamson
Main contractor Bowmer & Kirkland
CAD software used Revit, 3ds Max, SketchUp, Photoshop, InDesign

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Ha! Brilliant. Roberto Carlos indeed.

    So many others clearly based on Archie Gemmill's dribble against Holland.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.