Sprinting to the top

10 Jan 2011

Athletics centre employs innovative techniques to make it a winning piece of architecture

In 2002, Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, with the support of UK Athletics and Sport England, proposed a High Performance Centre for athletics at Picketts Lock. The vision for the centre was to provide a regional training centre as part of a national facilities programme to improve the performance of elite athletes, support to clubs that develop young talent and use by schools to increase awareness and inspire children.

The facility was required to be technically excellent and cater for this broad range of users in an inspiring environment that enhanced its surroundings and achieved high environmental standards for a modest budget; all on a brownfield site. The resulting facility designed by David Morley Architects has succeeded, if not exceeded, the clients requirements, and the architects remain in regular contact with the client team and those that use the building to understand how it is measuring up to pre-opening targets, assisting with fine-tuning to optimise performance in use, and most recently implementing a package of additions that reflect new thinking in elite sport developed since the centre was conceived.

The detailed brief for the development was initially set out in the 'Preliminary Project Details' issued by Drivers Jonas in October 2002. During June 2003 meetings were held with UK Athletics, Sport England and Lee Valley Regional Park Authority to agree the outline brief.

The following brief requirements were the main drivers for the design: key relationships between the High Performance Centre, outdoor track and existing facilities at Picketts Lock; minimum impact on the existing income generating facilities at Picketts Lock; opportunities for future development on the Picketts Lock site; a 200 m indoor athletics track with permanent banking and a separate sprint track; changing accommodation and support facilities; a range of conditioning facilities; spectator seating for 500 (indoor), and an external 400 m athletics track.

Whilst primarily intended for the training and development of elite athletes on UK Athletics’ World Class Programme the £16 million centre is also home to the Enfield & Haringey Athletics Club and serves the regional and local communities, encouraging and inspiring participation in athletics. By having every level of skill train in the same environment the centre hopes to encourage and inspire participation in athletics.

The building incorporates a 200 m indoor athletics track with permanent banking and a first floor sprint track with changing rooms and support facilities below. The Centre is a key training facility for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and forms part of UK Athletics’ long term vision for athletics development in London and the South East and is part of the English Institute of Sport (EIS) network.

The development enhances the special qualities of the site at Pickett’s Lock and reflects the sustainability objectives of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. An efficient roof form has been developed that minimises the span, increases the structural efficiency and allows the integration of environmental control systems that optimize the use of natural resources.

The entire building is naturally lit and ventilated through an array of asymmetric arched trusses supported and stabilized by clusters of raking steel columns. Full accessibility for wheelchair users is provided by a network of slopes eliminating the need for lifts in this multi-storey building.

The entrance to the building is located towards the southern end to provide access to both the HPC and the outdoor track. Clustered in this area are the café, offices/seminar space and club room with the intention for possible shared use of the larger spaces to provide flexibility for spectator refreshment facilities. The ancillary facilities are arranged in line below the first floor sprint track with the most public facilities (changing rooms) being nearer the entrance and linked by an open circulation corridor. Spectator seating to the 200 m track is also accessed from this circulation.

The more highly serviced area of strength and conditioning required a higher ceiling to allow for weights being lifted above people’s heads. In order to keep the building height to a minimum, this floor level is lowered. Some of the ancillary facilities are screened from the athletics area whist the strength and conditioning area has a glazed partition to allow a visual link between the two.

The 132 m sprint track above the ancillary spaces is reached via a long ramp spanning between the structure, so that both able bodied and disabled people access this facility together. In addition, the scissor arrangement of sloped access routes replaces the need for lifts – this is much better for wheelchair sports events and adds to the dynamic three dimensional quality of the interior.

The athletic specific facilities at ground floor level have been arranged around the dominant 200 m track. The positioning of the track towards the northern end of the building allows the throws to be located near the open space at the east of the site so that throwing indoors and outdoors is possible through opening doors. Storage for equipment is envisaged to be behind a secure enclosure but open to the facility.

The final location of these can be adjusted to suit the equipment when confirmed. A first floor sprint track with changing rooms and support facilities below also minimises the land taken up by the building, leaving more space left over for the surrounding park. The building form comprises asymmetrical arches that span between a low point to one side of the 200 m track to a high point above the pole vault area.

The profile of the underside of the arches extends across a two-storey section of building incorporating the 100 m straight above the ancillary accommodation. This gives an uncluttered appearance of a continuous soffit above all of the sports areas.

A raking strut reduces the span of the arch and provides lateral stability to the structure. An efficient roof form was developed that minimised the span, increased the structural efficiency and allows the integration of environmental control systems that optimise the use of natural resources. The external areas and fully glazed end walls adjoining the new building and outdoor sports track and facilities are designed to maximise public views into and through the building and to and make a strong visual link between the inside and outside facilities, this level of ‘open plan’ sport is intended to foster inspiration from one athlete to the next.

This also helps to integrate the new development within the existing site structure, and to provide clear routes and spaces for users, visitors and spectators. Taking the key points from the original brief, the theme of integration runs through many aspects of this project: linking indoor and outdoor facilities; serving elite athletes as well as club and local community; a dynamic building form that merges with the green belt; using the same components to maximise structural efficiency and low energy issues, and making a functional and accessible plan into an uplifting and dynamic environment to encourage participation in sport.

"When I became Chief Executive of UK Athletics in 1997, I recognised that the UK was also lacking the necessary facilities network to remain a world class athletics nation, and thus I instigated an £80m programme of facilities development. The landmark facility in this network was the Lee Valley Athletics Centre, and since it opened in 2005, it has helped the training of Olympic and World Gold Medallists,” David Moorcroft OBE.

“In our sport, the three things you need most as an athlete in order to be successful are the right coach, the right environment and the right medical support – you will find all three at Lee Valley,” Charles van Commenee, Head Coach, UKA.

“The centre is a hub of professionalism. We have everything here that we could possibly ask for – physiotherapists, nutritionalists, physiologists. I can come here, spend the day and get so much done. It has made life a lot easier and made me work a lot harder. I also recover much more quickly because everything is so close together, I’ve got every single support service I need coming out of one place,” Jeanette Kwakye, World Indoor 60 m silver medalist and Olympic 100m finalist.

Lee Valley Athletics Centre received an AWARDS Commendation in the Best Built Project category at the 2008 London Planning Awards, and was the winner of the RICS Awards 2010 for Sustainability.

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