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Boring, boring Arsenal? Don't you believe it! HOK Sport's £220 million Emirates Stadium in the heart of inner-city north London has had a bumpy ride getting off the drawing board and posed challenging architectural and engineering demands on the design team in the process.

In Chris Cleave's atrocious new book Incendiary - presuming to be a take on post-9/11 society - suicide bombers manage to launch a devastating attack on a major construction project in mainland Britain. 'I'm deliberately going out to scare people, ' says Cleave. But given that the terrorists' target is Arsenal Football Club's as-yet-unfinished Emirates Stadium, he has probably only succeeded in giving Chelsea fans a laugh. In reality, there are probably a lot of Arsenal's financial backers out there who are already perspiring profusely.

Much has been written about the decision to move from the club's existing stadium in Highbury - which has been its home since 1913 - to a new site just around the corner in Ashburton Grove and I won't rehearse those arguments here. Nor the malicious rumours that the club is spending so much money on the stadium that it cannot afford any players. Suffice to say that after exploring a range of locations for the new stadium, from King's Cross to Finsbury Park (and even moving to Wembley), the club is now mid-way through the construction of its new facility that will increase its capacity from 38,500 to 60,000 seats. I was allowed in for a sneak preview and taken around by Caroline Mills of HOK Sport and Paul Hallam of Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons.

This scheme has already seen a massive investment in time, money and energy, with more than two million manhours expended to date on the £220 million (capital cost) project.

And the money has to be recouped. Undoubtedly naming it the Emirates Stadium has contributed significantly, and it is hoped that 150 corporate hospitality boxes - each costing between £65,000 and £150,000 per season - might go some way towards it.

On arriving at Holloway Road - described by local journalist Robert Elms as 'gloriously run-down' - navigating the traffic lights, avoiding Libeskind's monstrous London Metropolitan University sprawl and ducking down Hornsey Road, there are still only glimpses of the towering stadium ahead.

Such is the narrowness of the streets around the western approach to the site that its scale never really dominates, or threatens, the local area. Until you turn the corner at the Little Wonder Café, that is, when the full magnitude of the project really hits home. After all, this is a 46m-high concrete and steel structure covering 7ha.

Alongside the HOK-Sport-designed stadium, and part of the overall stadium relocation project, is a housing development by CZWG which covers an additional 4ha, and then there is the £60 million redevelopment of the original Art Deco stadium itself, converting it into flats designed by Allies and Morrison.

Compared with rival Manchester United's 40ha Old Trafford stadium site, this all seems like a modest undertaking but the tight site has imposed different, but equally challenging, architectural and engineering demands on the design team.

Geoff Werran of engineer Buro Happold says the initial difficulty was trying to make optimum use of the triangular site, while maximising the potential for external circulation and development opportunities. Essentially, the plan shape is pretty much a given, and the elevation was generated by the site constraints.

Externally, the building is quite straightforward: a lower-ground-floor concourse that absorbs the changes in level across the site and provides space for vehicular and service access;

a main pedestrian concourse/entry level above; intermediate levels of access and hospitality with tiered seating above; and the dramatic steel roof. A concrete structure from the lower concourse, the steel structure kicks in at about 34m above lower ground level, with a false eaves line above the elevated glazed facade to further minimise the massing of the overall structure.

From the lower ground level, a 13m-wide ramp and vast staircases rise to the concourse-level. At the head of the stairs, 150mm-thick concrete guard rail baffles have been installed to break up the flow of supporters at the end of the game and help prevent anyone falling down the stairs due to pressure of numbers.

Unfortunately though, these do spoil the drama and perhaps, over-inflate the health and safety risks (even though I am told that it is to prevent a repeat of the disaster that occured at Glasgow's Ibrox Park in 1971 - and which led to the Green Guide (Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds) - it seems to me that the Health & Safety implications are not exactly comparable).

As befits a major public project though, health and safety is very much in evidence on site. Signs abound about hand/arm vibration syndrome (which used to be called vibrating white finger in my day) and notes remind workers that 'urinating on site is a dismissible offence'. As I complete my tour, there is a van owned by Pacific Construction - 'specialists in formwork' - that has obviously had something very large and very heavy fall onto it from a very great height. Apparently no-one was hurt but it sits in the compound smashed to smithereens as a visible warning.

The external glazing is nearing completion - installed by workmen assiduously wearing hard hats - and the site is remarkably clear of obstructions, rubbish and storage mounds.

We walk alongside the East Coast Mainline, where a part of Network Rail's land has been incorporated under an easement to ensure that there is a minimum 9m access around the entire site, bounded by the aforementioned concrete guarding, which will be topped with steel mesh railings.

Reaching the north of the site (the building is orientated on the exact north-south axis), a void opens up between the stadium complex and the Lough Road housing development. This access void will eventually be covered over by the main concourse level, burying in the basement all that is now visible including the exposed railway arches, and enabling a wider pedestrian access to the new bridge over the local rail line. Mills explains how this 14mwide northern bridge was installed in two sections, each weighing 180 tonnes. The south-east bridge - 100m long and 22m wide (as wide as a dual three-lane motorway) - was installed in one piece and will take the bulk of the arrivals but will remain open to the street beyond as an attempt to create more public space - to draw people into the concourse level and populate the area even when matches are not on. This was one of CABE's original suggestions which it will be interesting to watch develop.

Internally, the floor-to-ceiling heights are reasonably generous, especially at the turnstile (swipe card) entrance level, and the mezzanine galleries for the higher-paying customers are large well-lit spaces with views out. The normal punter also gets a better than average specification. The exposed concrete-block walling - a standard aesthetic for football fans - has been supplemented in places with finishes. Unheard of. The WC blocks, for example, notoriously bleak places in football stadia, have already been tiled out in club colours, with a Sika floor system and Tubeline aluminium suspended ceilings.

WCs have been provided on a 70/30 male/female split (compared with Highbury's 75/25) in recognition that more women go to matches these days. In the hospitality areas, this ratio rises to 50:50 following the recommendations of the Green Guide.

The hospitality boxes, accessed by priority stairs and exclusive lifts, have direct access onto tiered balcony seating through the sliding glazed screens. Internal timber screens have been stained in dark cherry, but in the process of French polishing the surface the red lacquer has streaked badly and this is currently being rectified. Included within the 150 hospitality boxes, there are a number of what Mills calls 'VVIP boxes' on the same level. These have access down to the players' tunnel and the car-park level if the VVIP needs to be whisked away during or after a match.

The main drama, however, is experienced not in the plush environment of the wealthy but by walking through the tunnel to the topmost tier. Here the enclosing effect of the roof - combined with the fact that the seating has yet to be installed - has, even now, intensified the gladiatorial atmosphere of this empty amphitheatre. Buro Happold's Geoff Werran says that the design team carried out 190 iterations of seating layout: 'Each and every one was valid but not optimum, as small changes in the front tier led to big changes in the rear because of sight-line requirements'.

He adds: 'We've had people working on nothing but the roof for the best part of five years, analysing the structure to keep it as light and thin as possible.' On this project, every millimetre gained in structural terms is a bonus for internal headroom.

The four main drivers for the roof's inward sloping design were: the need to minimise the external massing and comply with the height restriction; the need to maximise the pitch's natural microclimate - ensuring a gentle natural flow of air over the surface of the grass to improve 'photosynthetical activity, ' ie, the turf's condition; the desire for an exciting atmosphere for the viewers (realising the club chairman's desire for an 'intimidating and intense structure'); and the choice of a constant eaves line.

By forming an ellipse with a rectangular hole in the middle (the cut-out in the roof over the pitch) and providing it with a constant eaves and roof slope, the saucer shape is created automatically. The question is then how to hold it up.

The two primary trusses span 204m and are 15.5m deep.

Werran says that these trusses 'want to be 17m deep but are 1.5m shallower than is structurally optimum to comply with height restrictions. This means that they are slightly heavier than would otherwise be the case' - 720 tonnes in total - welded on-site and lifted in two sections.

The secondary and tertiary trusses take the roof build up, which has clear polycarbonate eaves to soften the shadows on the pitch (for the benefit of the TV cameras' contrast control). The temporary support trestles are being removed gradually to allow the structure to settle by 450mm under self-weight and a further 150mm when the cladding is installed.

The players' areas are just block shells at the moment.

(I assumed that the first vast space was the changing area but, in fact, it was the manager's office. ) A hydrotherapy pool (for the home team only), physiotherapy facilities and a boot room are all walled in ready to receive finishes. From here, the team will walk out on to a pitch which will be around 1m higher than the current level. For all its reliance on natural breezes, the pitch will be raised to have a hi-tech computerised management system underneath.

The scheme proposes a range of environmental measures that have satisfied the planners - from passive and mixed-mode ventilation systems to minimise the use of air conditioning to photovoltaic energy generation in parts. Most important, however, has been the proposal to reduce spectators' use of cars to travel to the new stadium but, in truth, this is as much a determining constraint on the use of the site as a conscious environmental strategy. With 60,000 people arriving at a given time, nearby Holloway Road tube station is dangerously inadequate and, as part of the £7.9 million Section 106 upgrade of the three major public-transport arrival points, it will be provided with an additional lift and staircase. The lower ground floor of the stadium will have 600 car parking spaces, of which 100 will be mobility-impaired access spaces, and room for 30-40 coaches.

As I wend my way from the site, back to the tumult of the Holloway Road, I pause to consider that this major development has been housed in an inner-city site, a stone's throw from the original football stadium, in the heart of the capital.

Only two houses were compulsorily purchased to facilitate this new construction and a couple of local businesses have been relocated because of it. When you consider that Arsenal FC can stick a mega stadium project in the middle of Islington with minimal disruption, it makes you realise that we are probably over-paranoid about London's so-called spatial density and congestion problems and in so doing are underselling its development potential.

The contract is a bespoke Design and Build with guaranteed maximum price (with L&A damages of £250,000 per week or part thereof) and Werran indicates that they are 'comfortably on schedule'to complete on 31

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