SOUE News Issue 11

The 38th Maurice Lubbock Memorial Lecture, 24 May 2012: LONDON 2012 - Engineering Success

Lecture by Howard Shiplee CBE

The lecturer had been Director of Construction at the Olympic Delivery Authority, (ODA) which from 2006 to 2012 had been charged with preparing all the numerous structures and facilities needed for the Games. It had been, he said, the experience of a lifetime, not only for himself but for everyone involved.

The phrase "Engineering Success" in his title was deliberately ambiguous. In the sense of "successful engineering" it was basically about things, but as "how to engineer success" it was much more about people. And the lecture would deal with both aspects.

At the start there had been much scepticism about whether the task could ever be done successfully. For example, only one firm tendered initially to build the stadium, and he believed they did that more out of patriotism than of expectation of making a profit! The reasons for this reluctance, apparently, were:

As Jacques Rogge of the Olympic committee had said, a city and nation taking on the staging of the Olympics should be willing to "mobilise as if for war". And he was right. So the ODA decided to adopt a very "intrusive" leadership style, with aggressive targets for employment, skills, safety, welfare, training, equality, diversity and sustainability.

LOCOG, the London Committee for the Games, was responsible for running them, and drew its funding from ticket sales, the media, sponsorship etc. The ODA had to provide the infrastructure. It was set up by Act of Parliament and reported to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. It was required to maximise the "legacy" element of its work. 85% by value of its work was required to be complete by July 2011, and was. Full handover was in January 2012. The original Games budget, totally unrealistic, was for £0.5 billion. This was later revised to £3.5 bn, and ultimately, by 2007, to £9 bn. £7.2 bn was for the ODA, of which £2 bn was for site remediation, £1 bn for the venues and £1.2 bn each for the athletes village and media centre. 75% of this £7.2 bn could be attributed to regeneration and legacy.

The ODA and its "Delivery Partner" together employed 800 people. To implement their "intrusive" leadership style they set up Programme Management Groups which continually monitored progress. The result was that people gradually came to trust that the ODA could do what they said they were going to do.

Site preparation

The site in East London had been chosen deliberately with a view to regeneration. Though close to the prosperous "City", it had been neglected for generations, and was now full of rubbish and pollution. It was also socially deprived, as can be seen from the fact that as one travels nine stops along the Jubilee Line from Westminster to Stratford, the expectation of life falls by nine years. The site is also criss-crossed by numerous rivers, canals and railways, though very difficult of road access. Compulsory purchase orders were complete by July 2007. We started by getting full control of the 240 hectare (2.4 km2) site, and fencing it securely.

The first thing to do was to put 52 power lines underground, in 12 km of excavated tunnels (3 m in diameter and 30 m underground), containing 200 km of copper conductors, the equipment needed to cool them and the associated switchgear. Since these lines were carrying about a third of London's power, we had to get it right first time. In the event it was all done on time and on budget (£250 m), rather to the surprise of EDF and National Grid, who had estimated it would take twice as long. One tunnel had to be diverted around a large and unexpected underground obstacle. There was no time for the legal niceties involved to be completed beforehand - we just got on with it, and got the compulsory purchase order about a year later!

About 270 buildings were demolished, and all the soil checked for contamination. Where necessary it was excavated, 1.4 x 106 m3 of it, chemically remediated and returned, since the option of just getting rid of it and replacing it was far too expensive. At one stage, 40 chemists were employed for this work. In the end, 98% of all soil and rubble was re-used, some of it having been moved around four to five times. Several WWII unexploded bombs were found, but none went off, though the demolition of one building did set off a spectacular fire. The smoke was visible from Westminster and Downing Street, and definitely set the phones ringing!

The stadium

The budget for this was £496 m. It had to be designed to seat 80,000 spectators for the Games, but 25,000 in its legacy use. This posed quite a challenge to the integrated design-and-construction team, but eventually they came up with a very neat and elegant solution. There are three concentric rings around the tracks: 25,000 permanent seats on the inside, 55,000 temporary ones outside, and outside them a structurally independent ring structure to hold the powerful lighting needed by the TV cameras, overhead supports for high-wire acts in the opening ceremony, and the roof. The material for this outer structure was a stack of redundant gas-pipes discovered in North-East England!

Aquatic centre

This will stay as part of the "legacy". But the 3.5 m water depth needed for the diving events is obviously unsuitable for child use later on, so the pool floor has been built so that it can be raised to whatever depth is required. The doubly-curved roof was designed by a brilliant architect, and has "not a straight piece of steel in it". The computer programs used to design it did not exist ten years ago. It sits on just three bearings, two fixed and one sliding. The wings to either side seating the spectators are not particular elegant, but are only there temporarily. One error was made in the design, in not realising at the start that the foundations would have to be reinforced to protect one of the power-line tunnels underneath it.

Water polo facility

This will be dismantled after the Games and its components re-used elsewhere.

Athletes' village and health centre

This has to house 17,500 athletes, but in legacy use it will be turned into 2800 apartments, about half of them "affordable", an 1800-pupil academy and a fully-equipped health centre. Designing it all was done by 19 different architectural partnerships, in the hope that the various bits would look attractive, and not all the same. The task of building them was given to a developer, but the 2008 banking crisis caused his funding to evaporate, so the ODA had to take over. Fortunately savings elsewhere meant they could afford to. They let it out as fixed-price contracts to a number of building firms who, as a result of the same crisis, had little other work on hand. Another 8000 housing units will be constructed after the games.

Velodrome (for cycle races)

It seats about 5000 people, and is built mainly of timber, from sustainable sources, with a cable-stayed roof. It will be dismantled after the Games.

Media press centre

This is a vast building, large enough to hold five jumbo jets. Elegance is perhaps not one of its strong points. The TV section needs air-conditioning and standby power for all the electronic equipment. The Press section is in a separate building (press and TV journalists don't mix!) which will become an office building in legacy use. There is a catering facility capable of producing 50,000 meals per day.


The site had to be made easily accessible by public transport, since 85% of the workforce came that way, and the same would be true of the spectators at the actual Games. So improvements were set in hand to Stratford station and the Jubilee Line, and to bus services. 12 km of new roads had to be built, and there are two combined-heat-and-power generating stations to feed the site. 150 acres are parkland, with 400 trees, and 150,000 plants, selected to flower at the time of the games. They had to apply to the Treasury for £365 m for these "logistic" improvements. The Treasury was most reluctant at first but eventually agreed on the understanding that the money could be claimed only as it was spent.


Security checks were used on the 15-18 thousand people working on the site, and a truck was typically entering the site every 40 seconds. For these, two holding parks were constructed, one to the North and one to the South, where every vehicle could be searched and then despatched at regular intervals, with an "expected arrival time" at the construction site. If they were late, for whatever reason, they were searched again on arrival. Some 150,000 road vehicle movements were saved by bringing in 2.4 million tonnes by rail, and much of the waste was taken away by canal barge.

Though the risk of terrorist explosions was thought to be fairly small during the construction phase, it would be much higher during the Games themselves, as would the risk of petty crime. So buildings were designed to be "secure-by-design" e.g. avoiding small dark corners where people could loiter unobserved. The whole site is designed so that it is almost impossible for hostile vehicles, which can carry much bigger bombs than a pedestrian, to get in at all. Buildings were designed to be resilient against explosive attack, using the following procedure:

  1. design them normally at first, without thought for the effect of explosives;
  2. submit the design to explosives experts, for criticism and suggested modifications;
  3. tell the designers to incorporate the modifications.

Engineering (as a verb) success

Our philosophy was to "pre-condition for success", and was based on three ideas: "leading"; "listening"; and "liaising", of which listening turned out to be the most important. Our "2012 construction commitment" involved:

Client Leadership: the ODA would lead, so that everyone gave of their best;

Commitment to People: showing we cared about them, and would look after them. "Respect" here was a cornerstone, as emerged in at least one rather stormy meeting with workforce representatives. And we laid on all manner of training courses. When we were short of drivers, Sir Anthony Bamford of JCB gave us £1 m worth of vehicles to train them on, saying "our equipment is good, but good drivers make it look better, so we like training drivers".

Our policy was to have most people on the site directly employed, but we were careful to see that the self-employed were treated equally. We originally estimated that we needed a workforce of 15,000 to 18,000 people. I estimate that by having an "engaged", and therefore smaller, workforce, a maximum of 12,500 in fact, we saved £80 m.

Design Quality: the facilities all had to be functional for long-term use, and were all assessed for this by independent professionals.

Technology: use the most up-to-date available, e.g. as in the design of the aquatic centre roof.

Sustainability: each project had a "sustainability action plan" - there were to be no "white elephants". Much of the remediated land can now be sold, with the money going back to the Exchequer. We did fail on our target of 50% carbon reduction - the windmill we hoped to build turned out to be not on.

Procurement and Integration: the policy was:

Most of the work was done by UK industry, which matches a new government policy.

Health and Safety. This had very high priority. "Respecting people" meant looking after not only their safety, but also their general health. We had full medical facilities on site, which could handle most problems. In the early stages we had a string of minor accidents, the three main causes being identifiable as:

One remedy was the strict training of supervisors. And people were told: "If you're not happy about the safety of what you are doing, stop". Ultimately our safety record was encouragingly low, if not quite as low as our original target.


Our policy could be summed up by the following:


"Those who think it cannot be done should not disturb those who are getting on with it!"

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