The Making of the Olympic Oval

December 31, 2007

Fine engineering-like fine art or fine wine-is about elegance, balance, and efficiency. Consider the roof at the Richmond Oval: the most original, innovative, and pleasing structure designed for the upcoming Winter Games. Deep arches leap over the ice surface where latex-slicked speed-skaters will race round and round. Each arch is something of a V-shaped blade itself, its ice-side terminating in an acute steel angle. It's as if some behemoth Hans Brinker is about to break through the ribbed ceiling.

Set into these vaulting blades are four-foot-deep sections of composite wooden panels. These arched panels were the largest that could be shipped on flat-bed trucks from the Deas Island factory of StructureCraft Inc. to the site on River Road. The steel blade arches went up first, beginning this summer; then arched panels were set on either side to complete the roof. Each panel's V-rib is stuffed with acoustics-improving mineral wool; fire-suppression pipes and nozzles are also threaded through the ribs. Design engineer Paul Fast has struck an artful balance here, mixing the strength (but cost) of steel with the malleability and local sheen (plus bang for buck) of the B.C.-made beams.

Long before our standard markets for dimension lumber collapsed in the U.S. housing meltdown, Fast's partner, engineer Gerry Epp, was designing value-added uses for B.C.'s forest harvests (as in the timber columns and plywood peeler core-space frames his firm devised for Bing Thom's Surrey Central City). As Epp was figuring out the roof, the scale of mountain pine beetle kill was becoming apparent. With blue-stained pine piling up at B.C. sawmills (beetle discolouration doesn't affect structural properties, but is thought to be a marketing liability, and the size of the dead pines means that only small-dimension lumber can be cut from them), Fast + Epp found a way to span one of the largest clear-span roofs in the province almost entirely with gang-nailed two-by-fours. Total cost: about $16 million.

Most of the world's finest engineers built their reputations with steel or concrete structures. Fast + Epp may soon join their ranks by showing how a renewable resource can accomplish everything that high-tech structures can, and more.

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