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Miracle workers

National pride was at stake: in August 2016 Rio de Janeiro was the first South American country to host an Olympic Games. Many doubted the city would pull the necessary preparations off in time. We played a vital role designing the huge amount of ‘behind the scenes’ infrastructure around each of the venues, battling tight budgets and the clock to get Rio over the finish line in time.

Rio 2016
Infrastructure planning, design and specification


Rio had no experience of putting on a sporting show on this scale before – there was a colossal amount of work to do, with finite budgets, in a very short space of time.


With US$500M worth of infrastructure to design for 55 venues in just six months, we introduced building information modelling to provide the clarity, speed, flexibility, and accuracy that the project demanded.


With designs flowing from our design team six times faster than industry standard, we enabled fast-track procurement of infrastructure, while also finding cost savings of up to 20% on capital-intensive overlay such as power generation and water supply.

Our weekly output snowballed as we got into our stride.

Leon Higgins

Project Director

Almost from the moment, in October 2009, when Rio won the international contest to host the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics, concerns were voiced about the city’s ability to complete preparations in time. Famed for its hedonistic carnival and beach culture, stunning location and, no less, for its impoverished favelas, Rio was on its way up in the world as a centre of commerce – the engine of Brazil’s powerhouse economy.

But Rio had never put on an Olympic Games before. Nor had Brazil. Nor had any other country in South America.

Fears that Rio didn’t have the skills to construct all of the vital infrastructure for a smooth-running games came to a head when Brazil hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup: the country fell behind on building the soccer stadiums, though the venues were ultimately fit for use. In May 2014 news agency Reuters reported that only 10% of Rio’s 56 Olympic construction, projects were finished. But a year on, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, was able to predict with confidence that all Olympic venues would be delivered on time, an achievement he referred to as “a miracle.”

That miracle has in part been worked by the 15-strong Mott MacDonald team responsible for designing the ‘overlay’ that is essential for staging any modern international sporting event. The firm supplied engineering know-how as part of a three-way design and build consortium of Brazilian and international firms.

Overlay is a small word for a huge amount of temporary infrastructure that is needed for the duration of the Games to meet the needs of teams, the army of Olympic officials and staff involved in running the event venues, the media and the fans. For Mott MacDonald, that involved approximately US$500M worth of temporary buildings and structures, water and power supply, drainage and wastewater disposal, spread across 55 separate sites.

“The needs of the Olympics are extraordinary and intense,” says Leon Higgins, project director for the overlay and head of Mott MacDonald’s buildings business in the Americas.

“It’s hard to think of any other circumstance when you’d need to create a temporary 16 studio media and broadcast centre in just one venue. Everything has to be world class. And everything, from power and communications supply to a TV studio down to the taps in a public lavatory, has to be reliable.”

For the seven weeks of the Olympics and Paralympics the overlay is essential (see box – No white elephants). But the idea is that, after the last medal has been awarded, the overlay is removed.

Ready, steady, sprint

Like almost everything to do with delivering the Games, Mott MacDonald’s design contract required the output of a huge quantity of work in a very short space of time. The consortium had just six months to quantify the infrastructure needs for each of the 55 venues, survey the site and develop a site plan – an activity akin to town planning for the major venues – then design the infrastructure itself and issue specifications for supply and construction. With half a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure to create, the team had to produce procurement-ready documentation for up to US$20M of overlay works a week. “Our weekly output snowballed as we got into our stride,” says Leon.

A lot of overlay work doesn’t involve construction in the conventional sense. “Much of it is about getting standardised components – whether that’s power generators, toilet blocks or broadcast trailers – in the right numbers, in the best configuration, and in the optimum place to meet needs.” Even landmark buildings can be created using standardised structural components, as was shown by Mott MacDonald’s shooting venue design for the London 2012 Olympics. The majority of components are sourced from the rental market.

Mott MacDonald went into Rio with the experience of designing major overlays for the London Olympics, the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, UK, and the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada. The firm had applied BIM (building information modelling) with huge success. But Rio wasn’t ready at first. With no track record of either overlay or BIM, the client’s procurement team expected traditional design drawings.

“At the start of this frenetic six month delivery period we had to explain BIM to our client, win their trust and persuade them that it was the way to go.” Subsequent performance proved that their trust was well placed.

For overlay, BIM involves creating an asset database of virtual components that are tagged with attributes ranging from their weight and dimensions to power demand and water consumption. Assets are ‘dropped’ into the overlay drawing and those attributes inform the infrastructure design. Once on the drawing, attributes can be summed or manipulated to provide data, which you can then use to assess the gaps in infrastructure, or inform the basis of equipment selection. But the real beauty is that if equipment changes, changes to the central database propagate through all of the overlay drawings.

“For overlay you’re looking for different asset data than for a permanent building,” Leon explains: “For temporary power supply, you’re simply defining the minimum capacity and number of generating units needed to meet demand. Your BIM model contains the generators’ power ratings, dimensions and price, where they are to be located and where they’re sourced from. An office trailer is more complex – it needs to incorporate multiple objects such as desks, chairs, windows, light fittings, doors, WCs, hand basins, towel dispensers and fire extinguishers – but the same principles apply. Generator and office trailer can both be represented on the site plan as simple blocks. But there’s a huge amount of data attached to those blocks, which tells the supplier exactly what they have to provide.

“It’s putting the effort where it’s really needed. Our client realised that they didn’t require detailed engineering drawings to procure the overlay. That enabled us to accelerate the programme and, even better, change things very quickly.”

Building on the object library developed for the London, Glasgow and Toronto games, Mott MacDonald generated roughly 250 distinct asset classes for the Rio overlay, incorporating many thousands of BIM objects. Working across the 55 Olympic sites, Leon says that the company’s BIM working methods yielded efficiencies from the start.

“Overlay design is about meeting needs in the most expedient way. There are no prizes for coming up with original solutions from one site to the next. You assess the requirements in each location, then use different configurations of standardised kit to meet them.

“So our 250 asset classes repeat, and repeat, and repeat.”

Honed for performance

Close attention has been paid to ensuring the overlay is ‘competition fit’. Thanks to metadata on cost, Mott MacDonald could price different design options and deliver instant cost savings. And the systematic way of working made it easy to carry out gap analyses, protecting against potential shortfalls.

Leon is quick to point out that the design carries no fat. “The overlay market is characterised by a pretty rudimentary approach to design. Each event has been treated as a one-off resulting in design from scratch – the industry has done very little learning over the years. And it tends to ignore principles that are commonplace in other branches of engineering.” He points to power supply: “Usual overlay practice is to carry out a needs assessment. People conclude ‘here we need 800kW of generating capacity’, by summing the manufacturers power ratings for all the overlay on site. A 800kW generator is ordered in. Job done.” But people don’t recognise the difference between theoretical and practical maximum demand.

“In reality your loads will never all be at full whack at the same time.” Under most circumstances power engineers calculate it is safe to design for 65% of the theoretical maximum load. In Rio, Mott MacDonald has offered some additional redundancy in generating capacity, designing for as little as 80% of the theoretical maximum.

The same principle has been applied to water supply and sewerage.

Small and beautiful

But, says Leon, savings on time have been no less impressive. Mott MacDonald’s working methods enabled it to release procurement specifications six times faster than its competitors in the overlay market. “Once we got our core operation going our team was incredibly small, relative to the scale of the job. That was great for efficiency and information sharing. Small really was beautiful.”

Mott MacDonald’s compact efficiency was demonstrated by its ability to deal with change. Overlay designs had to be highly responsive to work by other parts of the Olympic delivery team. Site layouts were in a state of flux during the early stages of the programme and the team was called on to reconfigure its designs up to five times. The company’s BIM working methods allowed changes to be accommodated with ‘drag and drop’ ease.

Why’s nobody done this before?

Applying BIM to sports overlay design is an industry-changing idea that has caught the eye of event organisers around the world. Mott MacDonald has been commissioned to advise Gold Coast, Australia, on staging the 2018 Commonwealth Games and are talking to COPAL, organisers of the 2019 Pan American Games which will be held in Lima, Peru.

During its work on each event, the company has expanded its BIM object library. “As far as we know, none of the requirements for an overlay have been captured, calibrated from real events, and then centralised in a database,” Leon says. “It sounds simple enough, but we’ve create a database that defines not just what assets go into an overlay, but how many of each kind of asset you need – and that database is unique.

10 sustainability rules for venues and temporary overlay

(From the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games Sustainability Management Plan)

  1. Pursue compact designs and better performance from energy and materials
  2. Prolong the useful life of materials and structures
  3. Reuse existing materials and use recycled or renewable resources
  4. Don’t use materials harmful to health
  5. Reduce carbon emissions
  6. Conserve water
  7. Minimise earth-moving activity
  8. Use natural systems to achieve energy efficiency and thermal, acoustic and lighting comfort, and to create healthy, pollution-free indoor environments
  9. Maximise use of renewable energy
  10. Reduce replacement and maintenance needs over the lifetime of the facilities

How much power do you need for each office trailer? How much water do you need per washroom? We’ve quantified that. We’ll be able to track changing technology as elementary as the transition from incandescent to fluorescent to LED lighting, plot their impact on power needs – and keep handing those efficiencies on to our clients.

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