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One-on-one: Michael Hall, partner, FaulknerBrowns Architects

Michael Hall, partner at FaulknerBrowns Architects, on the vision behind Derby Arena, which includes the world’s first ever raised velodrome track design 

 

Derby Arena, the English city’s first multi-sport stadium and velodrome and the first new-build velodrome constructed in England since the London 2012 Olympics, officially opened in March 2015.

The impressive US$40.5m (£27m) arena houses facilities for community sport and fitness activities, including a 12-badminton court-size sports hall and a gym. Derby Arena will primarily serve as a sporting venue but it will also host cultural events, exhibitions, product launches and conferences. This new column-free space is designed to hold up to 5,000 spectators for both sporting and non-sporting events. 

What was the inspiration behind the building’s design?
The inspiration was really about the opportunity to create a new building type for cycling that’s more accessible, more multiuse, operationally more flexible and has a greater chance of success. That was really the internal functionality, and that evolved into something externally, which was this dynamic building that would help be a bold statement for the city of Derby and help put it on the map.

Did you look at any existing velodromes prior to designing Derby Arena?
From what we’ve seen, many of them are underused, and as an experience for users and athletes they often involve going down lots of dark tunnels and make for an impenetrable experience. I looked at velodromes in Athens, Beijing and Berlin, and a real touchstone was the facility in Montreal, which became a massive white elephant and was subsequently converted into some kind of zoological experience. So, seeing for one’s self how these buildings work technically and operationally gave us the clues to see if there was a better way of doing it.

What aspects of the building are particularly innovative?
The track itself is lifted one story above the arena floor, which is unlike any other velodrome track in the world. That came about after we revisited our velodrome project in the Netherlands and one of the operators asked what we would do differently if we could do it again. So, we were just brainstorming in a pub in Holland one evening and we asked ourselves what would happen if we lifted the whole track up an entire story? Well, if you completely divorced it from the arena floor you get this much, much stronger operational connectivity. And we thought, ‘Wow, but what are the implications of this?'

Because UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), the international governing body, has some very prescriptive things about how it wants to run events, we were going to have to break a few rules, or certainly test them to the limit. But we thought the idea of lifting this track gave these fantastic operational advantages. So, we explored that and absolutely maximized the opportunity. It’s the single biggest innovation that’s going to make that building unique in the world and will make this building type genuinely very, very flexible. 

Can the track retract to the ground level?
As it happens it’s actually permanently one story above and then all the spectator geometries are projected from that first floor position. So, the track’s lifted up but the ground plane is one flat plane, whereas normally a velodrome track effectively sits on the ground and you go down tunnels or steps or ramps, you get disorientated, and you pop back up in the middle of the building. So, by lifting the track up people coming into the arena can see right through to a session happening on the track or having a game of badminton.

For how long did the project last from conception to completion?
We became involved in 2011 with a feasibility study and a reference point was the legacy for the London 2012 Olympic Games. There was an aspiration to very much link the projects. We then secured the design role proper in 2012, the contractor was mobilizing in the early part of 2013 and we were completing the design then too. And then there was effectively a 20-month construction period, which ended in September 2014.

What were the biggest challenges?
I think one of the interesting things about velodromes as a building type – and this is the fifth or sixth one we’ve been involved in – is that, unlike a soccer field or an arena, the field of play and point of focus to which the sightlines relate is an ever-changing three-dimensional pattern because the angle of the track is 11-12° on one axis and up to 42-43° on the other axis. So, choosing the point of focus means that the spectator bowl has got this very descriptive relationship with the track. And that in turn affects the geometry of many aspects of the building. 

Other than it being 250m in length, the track is not a standard track. There’s no universal geometry. So, setting all of that out and driving that into the overall form of the building is quite a complicated thing. Everyone has to be on side, from the track designer’s geometry to the guy working on the seating bowl, and then [you have to consider] how that drives subsequently into the rakers and the overall envelope. 

Cladding was a significant issue. We wanted the building to literally wrap up and be lifted so that you can see into space, whereas at the ends the building is pulled or drops down. This created a kind of twist in the cladding, so there were further three-dimensional challenges that were imposed by that.

Was Derby Arena always intended to be a mixed-use development?
In fairness, it evolved into that. It started off as a velodrome/community sports facility, so all the innovations such as the lifted track primarily were about greater accessibility and making sure that the infield is really well used. And just by the way the geometry has been set out, you can get three basketball courts in there, which is more than any other [arena] that’s been done. But then we said, “If we’ve got this much flexibility, how much harder could it actually be to overlay this for events, small pop concerts, [and] comedians?” Since then it’s snowballed into other things like graduations. So, that latter part was an evolution, once the client saw how flexible the design could be.

April 23, 2015
 

 

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