Beyond 2012 - an integrated Design Story

Water Polo Arena
A built environment story

“Our whole team was committed to delivering the best possible water polo venue and showing the world that British design teams have some of the most talented architects and engineers.”

What inspired your design concept?

The London 2012 Games gave us a unique opportunity to create a venue tailored for water polo. In the past Olympic water polo events have been staged in swimming pool arenas, giving rise to inevitable compromises. The fact that this venue was to be temporary meant that we could create an environment that really suited the players and spectators.

What challenges did you face along the way?

Our design thinking lead to one of the largest spanning inflated PVC roofs in the world, and a double fabric façade cavity concept that formed an effective heat and sound barrier. This innovative solution was developed in order to meet the strict internal environmental conditions of the brief, which also required the use of lightweight materials for the envelope and minimum mechanical intervention.

Design thinking played an important part in helping the team to understand how best to use lightweight sustainable materials for the structure’s insulating skin. An economic and effective solution, the recycled PVC roof protected the venue from the external elements and reduced energy use and enhanced comfort within the space. This double fabric facade was engineered to reduce heat loss from the pool halls, provide effective solar control and produce good acoustic performance.

What about specific design challenges?

A specific design challenge was the need for a single space volume to contain three differing environmental conditions with minimal plant and use of building materials. The three zones included the field of play (FoP), Olympic family/VIP spectators, and general public spectators.

The zones were arranged so that the FoP was in the middle of the volume, the Olympic family on one side, and all of the general spectators on the opposite side. This radical new architectural concept lead to the distinctive wedge profile of the venue and allowed the three environmental control strategies.

The FoP was air-conditioned to the strict requirements for the sport, the Olympic Family seating areas were cooled and heated to maintain controlled comfort conditions, and the general spectator seating was naturally ventilated to provide a wider range of comfort conditions. The three zones were separated environmentally using air movement alone. This separation was achieved by ‘air blades’ that acted as invisible thermal walls.
Using this strategy we were able to halve the amount of heating, ventilation and cooling plant required, and only provide enhanced envelope treatments where necessary.

We did extensive computer modelling to prove the design concepts, using dynamic thermal simulation and computation fluid dynamic software. Measurements taken during the test and competition events showed good agreement between the modelling results and the actual conditions, which was very rewarding for the engineers involved. This data provided useful benchmark information for the modelling software, which is already being used to help verify future environmental design concepts on other buildings.

How did it feel to be involved in such an important British project?

In a word, pride. Our whole team was committed to delivering the best possible water polo venue and showing the world that British design teams have some of the most talented architects and engineers. There was no better way of achieving this than at an Olympic Games where the whole world was watching, and it meant even more to us that this was a home Games.

At the test event opening game Team GB women’s water polo captain Fran Leighton was quoted as saying: “When we walked out I could feel the nerves, but it was excitement rather than thinking ‘Oh my God.’ Looking up at the crowd cheering and getting behind us was absolutely amazing.” It was really rewarding for the design team to hear what she had to say and she confirmed that our concept of having the supporters rising high up on one side of the venue paid off in terms of atmosphere.


Company name
Max Fordham

Water Polo Arena


Project team

Neil Smith
Senior Partner

Mark Palmer
Pools Specialist

Andrew Leiper

Kai Salman-Lord
Heating Ventilation Cooling/ Building Physics

Neil McBride

Nick Cramp
Lighting /Building Physics

Hazel Selby

Dave Degrussa

In collaboration with:

David Moreley Architects

Buro Happold
Structural engineers

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