A large turtle waving oversized flippers, a dolphin’s back, an airy dramatic space that suggests a wave: The London Aquatic Centre, built for the London Olympics, has been described as all of these.

No matter which likeness you see, designers have envisioned this state-of-the-art venue to provide a powerful experience for the 2012 Summer Games, and a vibrant new facility that will be an asset to this capital city of 8 million for years to come.

The Aquatic Centre’s beginnings

Construction on the venue began in June 2008 and was completed on July 27, 2011, exactly one year prior to the start of the games. The finished $400 million project includes three different pools built to accommodate swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, the swimming element of the modern pentathlon, and the paralympic swimming competition. Water polo will be held in a temporary venue next door.

When Zaha Hadid Architects, in London, was called on to conceive a plan for the aquatics facility, the firm was no stranger to projects of this magnitude. Led by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, the first female recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the company has designed projects that include the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany; the BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany; and the Guangzhou Opera House in China.

But the Aquatic Centre project was different. “We wanted a strong design to celebrate the Olympics,” says Glen Moorley, one of the project architects. “But we also wanted high-quality construction to ensure a long life for the building and a very sustainable legacy for the capital.”

That goal presented a unique challenge. The British government, which funded the project, wanted a venue that could be used by the general population after the Olympic Games. So designers were charged with creating a venue that seats 17,500 spectators during the Olympics, and then converts into one that seats 3,500.

To best meet this requirement, the forward-thinking team designed the project for its legacy (permanent) use first, and then adapted it for the Olympics. This approach also resulted in substantial savings in construction and operating costs.

“Another challenge to the design was to maintain its simplicity while incorporating the technical requirements of performance and construction,” Moorley adds. “For example, the roof houses a lot of lighting, which is required so that the venue can be filmed in high definition for the Olympics.”

Design details

Like its predecessor the Water Cube, the London Aquatic Centre is designed with an eye toward aquatics and the fluidity of water in motion, but it avoids cliché.

“The undulating roof sweeps up from the ground like a wave — enclosing the pools of the Centre with its unifying gesture of fluidity,” Moorley says. But he notes that sulfur yellow, one of the official London 2012 brand colors, was used to accent the gray stain applied to the building to give it a consistent, weathered-finish look. Succumbing to using the blue associated with pools would have been too obvious, Moorley adds.

The Aquatic Centre concept is that of a large pavilion within a park setting, so the integration of the surrounding landscape levels was important to establish its position within the parkland context. The result is a surrounding environment that reflects the riverside landscapes of the Olympic Park.

The completed facility was built at a cost of $416 million and includes a 50-meter competition pool, a 25-meter diving pool and a 50-meter warm-up pool. The total holding capacity is 10 million liters, but it’s the details that really make the London Aquatic Centre pools stand out.

A number of features ensure that athletes will compete in an optimum environment, according to representatives at Devin Consulting, the U.K. firm hired as the aquatic consultant for the project. The pool is 3 meters deep throughout, to minimize vortex reflection, and the deck is level, with large-capacity transfer channels incorporated as part of a wet duct system.  During competition mode, the pool circulation system will ensure that the water is always maintained at the correct level, so bounce-back from the pool is kept to a minimum, and the pool remains “fast” throughout the duration of an event.

When it comes to water quality, British guidelines require chloramine levels below one-half of the free chlorine residual. At the London Aquatic Centre, the combination of high-quality filtration with effective circulation and UV irradiation will result in a chloramine level of less than 0.2 mg/l, excellent water quality for bathers and — in conjunction with the HVAC system — comfortable for spectators.

Water treatment systems incorporate flocculation using polyaluminum chloride (PAC); medium-rate filtration on high-quality, single grade, 1-meter-deep sand beds; medium-pressure ultraviolet radiation; heating; and automatic pH and pre-chlorine residual control. The filtration system will remove particles down to 1 micron.

There also are a number of “green” design elements featured in the facility, for which the Aquatic Centre received a Breeam Excellent rating, a design and assessment method for sustainable buildings. These include variable-speed drives incorporated on all of the main circulating pumps so that the rate of water treatment corresponds to the actual demands of the bather load. The use of VFDs is expected to result in significant reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Other eco-friendly elements include close control of the chemical parameters to minimize chemical usage and the reduction of disinfection byproducts, and the recovery of backwash water with its own specially designed treatment system so that recovered backwash water is then used for toilet flushing throughout the complex. Looking ahead, to create maximum versatility for future use, a traversable boom at one end will allow the pool length to be accurately set, and a submersible boom with a movable floor at the opposite end will create a flexible space.