Oval and Above

PROJECT Richmond Olympic Oval, Richmond, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Cannon Design
TEXT Ian Chodikoff

Across the Fraser River from Vancouver lies the city of Richmond. Spread out across 17 islands, Richmond operates as a busy transportation hub for the Greater Vancouver Regional District, yet over half of its total area is comprised of farmland, parkland and natural areas. With a population of just under 200,000, slightly over 60 percent of its people are either Chinese or South Asian in origin, making it one of the most diverse municipalities in British Columbia. Long considered a vast suburban wasteland known primarily for the Vancouver International Airport and for malls catering to its strongly Asian population–rather than its industrial riverfronts populated by fishing boats and historic canneries–the urban identity of Richmond continues to evade the hearts and imaginations of most Vancouverites. However, this is about to change. Having enjoyed considerable growth over the past several years, Richmond’s reputation for banal subdivisions and a lack of pedestrian-scaled public space will finally be put to rest, now that its new speed-skating facility and athletic centre is set to play host to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games in February.

Already open for nearly a year, the Richmond Oval will not only become a competition venue for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, but will also remain as an anchor building to bolster future interest in redeveloping the surrounding region once the speed-skaters return to their respective nations after the Winter Olympics. When visiting the site today, the area’s potential still remains locked in the imagination of architects and planners. If it weren’t for the building’s supergraphics declaring its presence, visitors to the new facility would certainly feel lost, convinced that they took a wrong turn in the middle of an industrial park. But despite the current barren qualities of the site, one could be convinced that with the addition of the Oval, a very livable community with vibrant commercial and residential activities could be established in a relatively short time frame. Already, some measures have been taken. The Water Sky Garden and Riverside Plaza (also known as BC Spirit Square) occupy some of the vacant land surrounding the Oval. Here, the installation of public art and amenities have been encouraging accessibility for pedestrians to this newly formed public space.

The first of the two initial site improvements is the Water Sky Garden, which contains a $1.2-million public art project–the largest ever undertaken by the City of Richmond. Designed by Boston-based public artist Janet Echelman, 70-foot-tall lanterns suspended by fishing line will change colour throughout the day and night. When designing the Water Sky Garden, attempts have been made to naturalize the landscape with a series of shallow retention ponds to slow the stormwater run-off flowing into the Fraser River. While the design doesn’t recreate the lush cranberry bogs of Richmond, the landscape strategy involves re-engaging the variety of plant material naturally present in the local low-lying marine environment. The second public space intervention is Riverside Plaza. Featuring Coast Salish-themed sculptures by Musqueam artist Susan Point, it will host a range of year-round public activities. Other public art installations on the site include Buster Simpson’s less ambiguous sculptural interpretation of skate blades adjacent to a new bridge crossing the Hollybridge Canal.

Designed by Cannon Design, the 7,600-seat Richmond Oval represents one of the finer structures designed and built for the 2010 Olympic Games. Cannon, which has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and Calgary, employs close to 800 people in 17 offices throughout North America, as well as in Shanghai and Mumbai. The 506,000-square-foot sports facility is organized on three levels. The lowest level contains support functions and parking while the main space on the second level contains the central programmatic feature–a 400-metre speed-skating track that will host 12 medal events. The uppermost level contains a mezzanine for fitness programs and spectator seating as well as a hospitality lounge with views of the Fraser River and Coast Mountains to the north.

A key programmatic feature of the facility is its anti-doping lab, which will handle the drug testing for all of the medal events held at the Winter Games–a vital aspect that helps regulate and administer the realities of today’s world of competitive sports. In its legacy post-Olympic Games mode, the Oval will evolve into an international centre of excellence devoted to sports and wellness, while allowing the multipurpose athletic facility to be used by the local community, something that has already been done for the better part of this year. Many people frequent the facility to work out on treadmills, enroll in exercise classes, or play sports like badminton on one of the four hardwood athletic courts.

The Richmond Oval is the second purpose-built facility of its kind. The first purpose-built Oval was completed for the 1988 Calgary Olympic Games. Before that, all long-track speed-skating events occurred outdoors. The facility in Calgary was never designed to have a legacy mode, and therefore remains a single-use building. A flexible program was very important for the long-term viability of the Richmond Oval, where it could be easily converted for track-and-field activities. All four sports courts and the remaining one-third of the Oval’s section can be used for two international-sized ice rinks. The Oval is designed to revert to the 400-metre-long speed-skating track at any point in the future.

Building the facility was not without its challenges. The site is located on top of a river delta where soft soil extends down over 200 metres. Because a high-performance speed-skating track requires tolerances that vary no more than 20 millimetres over the entire length of the Oval, it was decided to raise the slab above the ground plane through the design of a two-level structure partially supported by a raft foundation, with the remaining portion supported by concrete piles. The resulting structure created 450 parking stalls, additional athletes’ services, retail outlets and even an indoor paddling training facility.

The most distinctive aspect of the Oval is its roof. Its gentle curvature is inspired by a heron’s wing, where the feathered wing tips are represented by a segmented roofline that helps break up the visual monotony of the large structure. Designed by Fast + Epp, the roof’s surface area is vast–6.5 acres–so it is not surprising that over one million feet of salvaged lumber was collected from trees killed by pine beetles to create a structural ceiling that incorporates a significant number of services, while visually breaking down the scale of such a large building component. The massive amount of wood used remained relatively affordable, largely due to the fact that the majority of it was locally harvested lumber from dead pine forests. The bones of the structure, 15 steel-and-glulam composite arches–the longest of which provides a 100-metre clear span–are integrated into the complex ceiling matrix that curves in two directions. The arches are made of BC Douglas fir which rest upon 30 enormous concrete buttresses. To increase the lateral stiffness of the beams, a composite steel beam–referred to as a “skate-blade” beam–forms the base anchor for the glulam arches. Building these structural members was no small feat. The glulam elements were transported to a steel fabrication facility where the two materials were integrated into the composite structure that we see today. Because the interior architecture is dominated by the vast surface of the ceiling, it was important to create an appealing aesthetic that was unmarred by the mundane yet necessary services of the facility. For this reason, the centres of all the structural beams were designed to
be distinctive V-shaped elements that integrate heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, plumbing, acoustical, electrical and lighting systems, resulting in a visually coherent aesthetic. The HVAC ducts that are integrated into the beams have motorized nozzles to distribute cool air to wherever it is needed; appropriately, effective environmental separation between the rinks and other sports functions is maintained.

Because the design team couldn’t find any precedents for large wooden ceilings of this size and span, they developed their own. Known as the WoodWave Structural Panel System, the panels used for the ceiling span 15 metres in between the composite glulam beams. The panels are built up from very pedestrian 20 3 40 lumber strips of pine beetle-killed wood to form a 26-inch-deep zigzag section. The WoodWave system is able to transfer loads to the arches and absorb sound while meeting existing fire safety requirements. The ceiling’s structural loads are distributed diagonally through the spliced wood members, and into supports at either end. The final result is truly admirable and will likely become a seminal case study for architecture and engineering students.

Upon close inspection, the expansive wavy ceiling is actually quite crude, revealing the partially concealed electrical and miscellaneous conduits along with the acoustical blanketing and sprinkler system. But given the fact that the ceiling is mostly viewed from a distance, the overall appearance is impressive, even mesmerizing. Certainly, the ceiling’s use of naturally sound-absorptive lumber, with its thousands of openings, provides a significant acoustical dampener for the space, reducing its tendency to feel cavernous and making the interior architecture warm and inviting.

By utilizing innovative solutions in wood design to create a successful sports venue for the 2010 Winter Games, the Oval is a landmark building that will undoubtedly raise the profile of Richmond while helping to prime an important site for future development. Given the nature of the program, designing such a massive structure while maintaining a sense of warmth and intimacy is quite an achievement. The number of awards that the building has received thus far is well-deserved. CA

Client City of Richmond
Special Structural Design Fast+Epp
Structural Glotman+Simpson
Electrical/Mechanical Stantec Consulting
Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Civil/Marine Delcan Engineering Group
Building Envelope Morrison Hershfield Group Inc.
Geotechnical Thurber Engineering Ltd.
Wildlife and Ecology ECL Envirowest Consultants Ltd.
Feng Shui Fortune Teller & Associates
Urban Design Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden ARchitects + Urbanistes
Wayfinding/Signage Karo Group
Code/Fire/Life Safety LMDG Building Code
Security 3Si Risk Strategies Inc.
Costing BTY Group
Project Managers MHPM Project Managers Inc.
Builder Dominion Fairmile Construction Ltd.
Area 506,000 ft2
Budget $178 M
Completion December 2008