February 8, 2006

More money, fewer buildings, less design

(A radio version of this column aired "On the Coast" on February 6.)

Last week, John Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver Organising Committee (VANOC), said the cost of venue building for the 2010 Olympics has gone up by $110 from $470 million to $580 million. Furlong wants B.C. and the federal government to cover the shortfall.

Furlong also added that VANOC had already cut $85 million to keep their building projects under control. They already stopped the construction of an international broadcasting centre in Richmond, B.C. Instead, it will be rolled into the press centre housed in the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre.

But what impact will cost increases and project cuts have on the design of the remaining Olympic buildings to be constructed in Vancouver and Whistler? Their costs are going up. Will it lead to weaker design?

It may be hard to calculate. For example, take the Richmond Olympic Oval which many consider the signature building of the Vancouver Olympics. It will be built by the city of Richmond with $60 million from VANOC and the rest from its own coffers.

VANOC claims they have saved $28 million by moving the long-track skating arena from its proposed spot in Burnaby to Richmond. However, the cost of the project jumped from $68 million as originally planned by the bid committee to $178 million.

Ted Townsend, senior manager of corporate communications for the city of Richmond, says VANOC's contribution remains the same. Richmond hopes to cover the extra costs by selling land next to the oval and creating a new urban centre for the area. Townsend describes their strategy as, "Olympics plus."

Another advantage Richmond may have is that they became involved in the Olympic project after Vancouver won the bid. As a result, they were able to calculate the cost of the oval in 2006 dollars unlike the Vancouver bid committee. In the race for the 2010 event, the International Olympic Committee required suitor cities to bid in 2002 dollars.

When asked if the oval's cost would increase anymore, Townsend replied, "We're going to be able to meet the budget."

On the design side, one of the principal architects of the skating oval, Gene Kinoshita of Cannon Design, remains unflustered by the announcements. He says, "Any changes we make will meet the functional and programmatic requirements of the project."

He added that as long as the building maintains the theme or concept the budget can change. Kinoshita says, "The main theme of the building is flow, flight and fusion."

The roof takes inspiration from the heron, one of the symbols of Richmond. The roof resembles a wing with feather-like overhangs that look on the upper arm of the Fraser River.

For example, the roof will be held up by 14 giant wood trusses. It recognizes the importance of the forest industry to the region. Preliminary designs envisage the supports spanning nearly 100 meters over the track and the grandstands. Each truss will end on either side with a metal connector, or blades, locking it to a concrete buttress. For Kinoshita, they capture the spirit of the sport. He says they are "like ice skates."

He also adds, "These elements are non-negotiable and if you keep them, you'll still have architecture."

The secondary trusses, however, may be sacrificed to cost-cutting measures. Kinoshita wants to see them made from wood but steel may become the necessary and cheaper choice.

Cedric Burgers, a West Vancouver architect and a former summer Olympian, warns that there's always a temptation to bring costs under control by cutting finishes. He advises that it's better to cut early and cut into big ticket items in a project. Burgers says, "Finishes take up 5% of your budget. Concrete and steel can take up over 80% of the budget."

He stresses a smaller building with high quality interior finishes will be far more successful than a big building with cheaper finishes.

Burgers says, "It’ll just look bigger and cheaper.”

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