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The best Olympic legacy would be better projects

Building engineering firms could be the real winners from London 2012, says Paul Hardy
When the national media talks about the legacy of London's Olympic Games in 2012, they tend to focus on sport and converting 'couch potatoes' into fitness and health paragons. There will be thousands of budding Jessica Ennises; Sir Chris Hoys and Tom Daleys, but that initial excitement will gradually fade when the winter weather makes training much less appealing.

Arguably the true and lasting legacy will be seen in our sector.

In a report released just before the torch arrived in London, the construction of the Olympic Park was described as 'a superb advertisement for UK plc', which will help British firms win business at home and abroad. Sir John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and the report's author, said that the 250 British firms surveyed were more optimistic about the future as a result of working on the project. They also said they had experienced 'better ways of working' and seen greater use of technical innovation.

The UK's longest ever construction supply chain pulled it off. They delivered £9bn worth of project value made up of 75,000 separate work packages. At its busiest, there were 4,000 operatives working on the 650-acre site, but they delivered everything on time and to specification. It was even on budget.

The successful delivery of Olympic projects is an example of what the building services industry, as a key part of that supply chain, can achieve in the face of financial pressures and a squeezed timetable.

The prophets of doom forecast disaster when it appeared the construction team was late starting on site. In fact, it was detailed off-site planning that laid the foundations for the successful outcome. Rushing to start work is never a good policy even if you are up against the most immoveable deadline imaginable.

The use of Project Bank Accounts (PBAs) on some projects also helped to knit the delivery team together by reducing financial risk for sub-contractors. Howard Shiplee, who led the process as the ODA's director of construction, has rightly been applauded for his enlightened stance. He trumpeted the achievement as 'a beacon of hope' for the whole industry that 'demonstrated on a world stage what we can do'.

The project is not a single success story, but a whole series. The overall 'can do' spirit created a wide range of technical achievements such as the air conditioning system in the Velodrome.

Despite having to deliver a closely controlled indoor environment for the benefit of competitors and spectators, the facility is still 31 per cent more energy efficient than Part L of the 2006 Building Regulations requires for this type of building. It also uses rainwater for flushing toilets and watering the surrounding landscape. Water use across the Park, in general, is 40 per cent less than regulations demand.

At the Aquatic Centre, the ODA's target to exceed Part L by 15 per cent was only communicated to the team at Stage C of the design process. By focusing on the building systems and fabric improvements, they were able to adjust their original plans to meet this tough target. And insulation generally was a big priority across the Park. Unusually, the designers took the health impact of the material itself into account. They decided that it would be healthier for operatives and future maintenance staff if the insulation material came from natural sources, such as plant matter or recycled material.

These are all examples of the innovative and sustainable approach adopted by the project team. The ODA's 'Learning Legacy' website (www.learninglegacy.london2012.com) is a valuable archive of case studies that can be used as first class guidance for the rest of the industry. The intention is for this to be updated to reflect the long-term performance of the buildings post-Games as that will be the true measure of building engineering success.

However, impressive as the technical achievements are, it is the overall approach that should inspire us all. Building projects are often chaotic, adversarial and stressful; and it would be naïve to suggest the Games project did not have its fair share of mayhem, but the overarching co-ordination was enough to pull this amazing project over the line with something to spare.

We should applaud this just as enthusiastically as we applaud our gold medal winners. Very few of us will ever achieve anything like the sporting prowess of an Ennis or a Hoy, but we can all seek to emulate the co-ordinated team approach demonstrated by the longest supply chain in UK construction history.

// The author is managing director of Baxi Commercial Division //
10 September 2012

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